Safa tech guru has a plan for Bafana Bafana to win the World Cup
Jason Anderson‚ the South Africa Football Association’s (Safa) head of digital‚ has a dream that in his lifetime Bafana Bafana can win the World Cup‚ and that the data capture system he is helping install can be a big part of doing it.
Being a tech guy‚ let’s answer the first question bound to arise – no‚ he does not mean on PlayStation.
And data capture is something that happens in an office. With desks. And filing cabinets. So how can it win a World Cup?
The answer is: it can’t alone. But as a starting point‚ there is more to it than meets the eye‚ and it can be a part of a revolution in South African football.
Anderson heads the huge task of implementing the player registration and competition systems for currently the top amateur leagues‚ the ABC Motsepe and SAB leagues (third and fourth divisions). Eventually Safa aims to capture the 2‚5 million to 5 million SA senior and junior men’s and women’s footballers.
The fact that Safa do not have a definite number‚ alone‚ is the first aspect the project aims to correct.
“That's the real heart of this MySafa.net project – at the core of it is a database of registered football players in South Africa‚” Anderson says.
He adds‚ almost sheepishly‚ aware how idealistic he sounds: “It’s not impossible for Bafana Bafana to win a World Cup if you look at what Iceland‚ with a population of 300‚000‚ did at Euro 2016‚ following that up with World Cup qualifying.
“If Greece can win the Euro and Leicester City the EPL‚ I’m sure Bafana‚ with the level of love for the game people in South Africa have‚ and gene pool of athletes‚ can win a Wold Cup.”
OK then. But how does data capture digitally of South Africa’s millions of players impact on that on a football field?
The first and most obvious benefit is to cut down on age-cheating‚ cheating of players playing in more than one league or team‚ and identity cheating.
Once the system is in all the leagues – right now‚ Anderson is celebrating reaching 100‚000 players captured by May‚ having started in September‚ and expects the process to take up to four years – there is the talent identification aspect as a result of being able to digitally track performing players.
Anderson worked as a tech consultant for Fifa for 15 years‚ came to SA in the 2010 World Cup‚ met and married his wife here‚ and relocated from Zurich in 2013. He began to model the digital system where he lives in Port Elizabeth‚ with Safa-Nelson Mandela Bay.
By September‚ Safa launched a “sort of version 2”‚ and started registering all the Motsepe and SAB leagues‚.
“The big thing was we changed the player cards‚ which used to be printed on desktop printers all around the association‚ from LFAs to regional.
“Now all cards come out of MySafa through a commercial printer in Johannesburg.
“They’re much higher quality cards and harder to forge or tamper with – they’re reverse printed on a film‚ which is laid down on a card.
“They are also cheaper at R6 a card‚ compared to R10 to R15 before. If you consider the numbers we’re dealing with‚ it’s millions of Rands saved.
“We also have a MySafa verifier downloadable app‚ so if there’s a suspicion a card has been tampered with you can scan the QR [square digital bar] code and it brings up the player’s details and his picture.
“The info caught on the software includes scanned ID documents‚ registration forms and the player's photo‚ and if they were registered within that league's window.
“There used to be so many different forms of cheating around football in SA‚ and honestly there still are. But we've been able to fight a number of them with the software‚ where everybody entered is checked against Home Affairs.
“We send the details to Home Affairs via a live API (application programming interface) – birth date‚ gender – so we can check if the ID number is valid‚ if it’s for a live person and who that person is.
“So there’s no more using your brother's ID to register in multiple leagues.
“And for the first time we have a national database. Before if you wanted to play in an LFA and on an SAB League team‚ for instance‚ which is against the rules‚ there wasn’t much chance of being caught because those two registrations weren’t connected.
“And because we've been able to prevent those registrations at the beginning of a league season we’ve been able to prevent a lot of the disciplinary cases.
“We aim to capture every South African footballer within four years. We started in September and captured our 100 000th player in May. There is a long way to 2‚5 million. We’re going at 10 000 to 20 000 a month.”
Anderson said the system was based on the German FA’s model.
“Our stated goal is we want South Africa to win the World Cup‚ quite frankly‚ within our lifetimes.
“And as crazy as that sounds‚ we feel like it is possible. We’re a bunch of technologists. Every time we look at it‚ we take the analogy of when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.
“We look at the problem of how to win a World Cup and we see it in technical terms – what can we do with technology to improve player development and talent identification throughout the association.
“We’re not concerned with Bafana or Banyana today. But we feel that in 10 years we can completely change the way talent has been identified‚ and have a massive impact on the national teams’ quality.
“After Germany crashed out in the first round at Euro 2000‚ they went home and looked at how they do everything‚ including talent identification. Underpinning it all were these technology projects.”
With just 100‚000 players captured‚ and not yet in a detailed form‚ Anderson’s system has a long way to go to be a functioning talent identification project.
“The first step is registration. So we're probably one step into a six-step process‚” he said.
“We know who’s playing on each team‚ we set the fixtures‚ capture the results and publish them and logs [on MySafa.net].
“Now we at least know where our registered players are‚ and which clubs are most successful‚ so we already have analytics built in so that we can track those‚ and start to see who the most successful amateur coaches in SA are‚ for example.
“Within the next three weeks we will release the match reporting data capture features‚ so we’ll be able to do the basics of setting team sheets‚ substitutions‚ cards‚ goal-scorers. Then we will be able to at least identify who the top U-9 scorers are in SA.
“One of the last steps is we will release a coaching app early next year to allow coaches to communicate with team members‚ set a practise schedule and capture what happened with that practice.
“Again we'll be able to leverage all that in our talent identification information.
“Once we get there‚ we'll have a mature system.”