When PIF comes to shove

Hi there, it's been a while. With the second half of the calendar year now underway, let's take a look back at the turn-of-the-year piece and what Get Goalside drew out as the themes to watch for 2023:

  • Football analytics jobs conceived of as an entire ecosystem (not just clubs)
  • Set pieces
  • Skeletal/body pose data
  • Data on the sidelines
  • Global game, global analysis
  • Ethics in analytics

Events of the last couple of months have sure made that last one seem relevant, huh. What with FIFPRO's commitment to working on a centralised player data hub to better allow players to access their data.

And then elsewhere, with 'global' in mind, is the Saudi Pro League (SPL). The big news on this front has, of course, been about the players and the transfer fees and the seriousness or not of prior support for the LGBT community. It's turning out to be quite the summer on that front. But if the plan for the SPL is to become one of the best leagues in the world, and not merely what some people still call the league that Celtic and Rangers are in, the money will have to go further than big-name coaches and players. That will include the backroom infrastructure of a club.

A football team is an iceberg, and this iceberg, now more than ever before, includes data and analytics. In fact, the strength of analytics staff at these teams may well be a barometer to watch to gauge how seriously this project is being taken. Training facilities and physios are things which players (the local ones and the very expensive foreign ones) interact with every day, and are what they rely on so that their bodies don't break down. The same isn't the case for analytics. Kylian Mbappé may be put off by a sub-standard gym; he's probably not gonna be put off by an inefficiently optimised database schema.

Of course, some of you, many of you, may well be reading this and expecting the 'should they go' question to crop up. First though, it's worth breaking down why people are asking it. As with many things, there are multiple reasons behind peoples' feelings, and without recognising this we risk conflating one thing with another. There are, I think, four broad categories of reasons that people have opposition or conflict about all this:

1) Saudi Arabian laws: A broad category that could be split further into things like LGBT rights, women's rights, democracy and free speech, 'foreign policy', and profiting from oil. For the moment we'll just keep them together as a broad 'moral belief clash with the regime'.

2) The sheer amounts of money: While the sudden influx of cash may help some clubs plug some short-term financial holes, football has a tendency to spend beyond its means to pursue the wealthiest rivals. On a slightly different level, rapid increases in fees and wages will always seem a little ostentatious, particularly given that footballers are treated as heroes in a way that most other multi-millionaires are not (people may admire the CEOs who take home millions in pay each year, but kids don't wear their names on the back of their shirts).

3) The fact that the money comes from the nation state: national investment funds aren't just some rich bloke burning cash and, although politics is tied to everything, it becomes a lot easier for football to be made a geopolitical bargaining chip when the state itself is so tightly involved. This is also the thing that particularly amplifies category 1: these aren't just jobs which are situated in a country with certain laws, and go a long step beyond merely being helpfully facilitated by that government.

4) Don't take our thing: look, we've got to be honest that this is part of it for some people, to varying degrees. Part of this is that European football may get weaker and it's convenient as a football fan to have the best players in one place, and part of it is because - despite six World Cup appearances - Saudi Arabia isn't thought of as a 'footballing nation' by most Europeans. This too will have several factors, partly kinds of prejudice, but the lack of Saudi Arabian players playing in Europe will also be a significant factor (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will undoubtedly have boosted the perception of Gabonese football among Europeans over the last decade).

Most peoples' reactions will draw from all of these four in various different proportions, and it would actually be surprising if they drew from one alone. Some people probably don't care much about 1 but care a lot about 3. Some may care about 1 but not 2 but a little of 4, etc.

It's worth making the point that some people within the industry may care about issue number 1 particularly because, unlike (what we assume about) high-profile male footballers and managers, it may be their lives which Saudi Arabia's treatment of the LGBT community and women affect. Because of the lack of publicly out gay or bisexual male footballers/coaches (itself a symptom of cultural homophobia, even if not legalised) the LGBT rights issue has mainly been a question of abstract solidarity. For some people, as far as potential job prospects there go, it's going to be a question of their very tangible life experiences.

On the theme of solidarity, it is somewhat interesting that this is taking place at the same time as industrial action is such a prominent topic in (at least) England and the United States of America. The US writer and actor strikes in particular are very well communicated (in terms of their grievances, what strike action means, and what support is available for people in that industry) and well-supported by high-profile figures in the industry who don't personally need the strike to protect their working conditions in the same way as less-prominent figures.

Get Goalside is one of the few areas of public industry chitter-chatter so take this as the opening of discussion for the non-player/coach side of the SPL story. I'm interested in what you think. If you've been forwarded this email/post rather than coming to it direct, Get Goalside can be found at getgoalside.newsletter@gmail.com. Also on Threads and Instagram, at getgoalside.analytics.

Have a good day.