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José Chieira: “We have to look at scouting before and after big data”

José Chieira is the former Head of Scouting & Recruitment at Sporting CP and Head Researcher in Portugal at Sports Interactive, the British video game developer of the Football Manager series. During his extensive career in the football world, he worked for clubs such as FC Porto, Panathinaikos FC, Académica de Coimbra and Vitória FC.

In this exclusive interview led by Nuno Milheiro, José reveals how the scouting process was carried out in the video game, summarizes the current panorama of scouting, and reflects on the use of big data in football.

Joining Sports Interactive

“Sports Interactive, as a company, did not even exist. There was no company whatsoever! They had a website, and since I was a hardcore fan of the game [Championship Manager], I registered myself. They called me and asked me if I wanted to do a test just by researching and sending data from C.S. Marítimo. It all started at that point, in 1994, a long time ago. Back then, I was at Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics, graduating in economics. Not many people had the Internet. Luckily, I had it at home, so it was a favorable condition to be able to start the job”.

Initial steps, scouting knowledge and network

“It has been an unbelievable story of… I would not say success, but a case study, not only in the video games industry but in scouting”.

Championship Manager – now Football Manager – was built on something that looked like, even nowadays, a scouting department.

“When I was 11 or 12, I played at Académica. My mother did not allow me to go to training sessions, I was also playing basketball and having English and French courses outside of school. I did not have the time, so I quit. I was kind of frustrated not to be playing football and had a lot of friends there. In the end, I just kept going to the matches and providing feedback to them. That was always there: the scouting, the assessment, the feedback, etc. When this all started – and having this hardcore fan background – the English guys from Championship Manager provided me tools to put in place specific tasks. So we used a database, and we had to provide information about clubs, grounds, referees, coaches, and players from different levels. As a great process, I had to start building my network, because we were expanding quickly, with many people. Getting help from these guys was a fantastic growing process for the database and me”.

Bold vision at Sports Interactive

“I would say it is cultural. These guys who were producing Championship Manager and created the brand had this vision of working in football. In their minds, they found it normal to explore something in the football industry with the game. They looked at the game as a football club eventually. They were willing to know the market and get more people on board. With this vision, they were able to find the right people to feed this process”.

Football Manager as a scouting and recruitment tool

“What I can tell by experience, after all these years, is that every club likes to have another source of reference and information. Even if they say no, there is a tool with some credibility brought over the years where they can reference players and get some information on them. I have met many people who are now my friends and working for clubs, and they have used Championship Manager/Football Manager. Everybody does it, even if they say no”.

Scouting process and dynamics

“We were working in pyramidal. I was at the top as a Head Researcher, with assistants who also had their own assistants – informers and other people on the ground”.

The process of managing all this data and information was very limited because the database was not online. Only one person at a time could have access to it.

“That was a nightmare and only changed three or four years ago for different reasons. It was not easy, even if we had these mini editors before we edit data from them to the main database. I always covered the Portuguese first league and most of the second league. For the other lower divisions and, at a later stage, the youth setups, we had all these networks spread around the country. There was no money involved. These guys were working with passion as fans of the game. At the end of the year, we offered a copy of the game for the best ones. The process was very clear and pure. It is a computer game, but the dynamics are pretty much the same”.

The evolution of scouting

“We have to look at scouting before and after big data. This is scouting 3.0. Scouting 2.0 changed when Wyscout and InStat came up with these video libraries. When I was at Panathinaikos FC, some tools started to enter the football world. They were associated with scouting but were essentially management tools. They would help you to manage a department, the squad, the contracts, and also the scouting. When I left for FC Porto, I got to Sevilla FC to understand how they worked inside their scouting department. In a meeting there, they had a huge black box in the scouting room. It was an online video library. You could choose different competitions, players, and matches online and check them anytime. At that time, I realized the world of scouting had changed. Firstly, I should have invented this, since I had this in my mind for years! You could see almost any player in the world with one click. That online tool came to democratize the whole process. That allowed clubs to become proactive in the market, not just reacting or waiting for the traditional DVD or VHS from the agents and families of the players. In the end, you have a lot of clubs, from different parts of the world, promoting good scouting work. They are able now to make more informed choices. You can identify the ones approaching the market scouting-oriented, big data-oriented, and nothing-oriented”.

The use of big data

“You have to be smart to use it. There are different ways to use big data and you cannot ignore it. The reason why big data got bigger and bigger is the new money coming into football. If you are an investor, you need to know where the money is being spent, and how a player is performing”.

Just remember the words from Pep Guardiola. He was very clear about it, and I agree with him 100%. How can big data tell me that my players are not ready to play in my system?

“When I signed for Sporting CP, one of the things I said to the president was that we did not the same resources as the others, so we had to find shortcuts to get things quicker and better. From day zero, with this idea of creating a big data department, I was looking for a profile of the professional we should be hiring: not a nerd or a guy from NASA – a guy with a football background and data knowledge. We finally got a fantastic professional. That was a learning process for everybody because we got the right profile. Most of all, you have to know how to build bridges between the guy taking care of big data – the analyst – and the other people at the club. You have to bring everybody to the table. Big data can bring you added value, but you have to be careful about how to use it”.

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