Andrej Pavlović is just another youngster in Belgrade, Serbia. He is 22-years-old, a qualified nurse after seven years of studies in medical science and loves football. He was introduced to the sport by his father, goalkeeper at FK Železnik (now defunct), a local club during the 1990s. Away from his strenuous job, he likes to play video games with Sega's Football Manager being the top choice.
The game, available on multiple platforms and consoles, is a series of football management simulation. Unlike other football games where you are the player, in Football Manager, you control things from the sidelines. In the game, you won't be Lionel Messi but Ernesto Valverde to ensure the FC Barcelona man plays well. It is also your job to attend press conferences, talk to the board, devise transfers, discuss contract extensions, motivate the players, formulate training regimes for the squad or specific players. It has a role in how the player does on the pitch in the subsequent game. Every single decision can have a bearing on the results making it difficult to win titles.
The crucial aspect behind plenty of decisions that are made in Football Manager are the statistics on offer for each player. The player attributes are divided into three categories: Technical, mental and physical. They are then further broken down on the basis of their performances such as corners, crossing, dribbling, finishing, aggression, composure, teamwork, acceleration, pace etc. It eventually helps the manager in making a decision on where the player needs to improve and whether the player is mentally fit to start games.
The amount of detail that the game offers forms a game-changing tool for scouting. That aspect has been recognised by real-life football clubs as well. In 2008, Everton signed a deal with the game makers to allow them to use the game's database to scout players and opposition.
This coming together of real-life football and video football is one-off, though. Just ask Pavlović. He's been playing the game since 2008 with England's Sheffield United, Italy's AC Milan, French sides Marseille and Paris FC but most of his time and effort have gone into being the manager of Bežanija.
Having taken over the club in the second division, he has been managing the 'Lions' for 16 seasons. In this period, he has taken them to 11 league titles (10 consecutive) and six Serbian Cups. Arguably the biggest achievement has to be run to the semi-finals of Europa League and Champions League — the premier competitions in European football. In the Champions League, he got past stiff opposition such as Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur before being stopped by Atletico Madrid.
FK Bežanija, a sixth division club, are based in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) with a stadium capacity of 2,000 fans and plans to expand to 6,000 in the future. Established in 1921, Bezanija are one of the oldest clubs in Serbia and have twice competed in the top division (Serbian SuperLiga) in 2006-07 and 2007-08, alongside the biggies Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade. In the first season, the club finished fourth which resulted in them playing the UEFA Cup qualifiers. Continued financial struggles, however, saw them relegated the next season and have since dropped to the sixth division.
Things didn't start well in the 2019-20 season. Bežanija had only five points after eight games and were 13th in the 14-team league. That is when Pavlovic tried something new. He took to Facebook and sent a message to the club director on 10 October. "I wrote about how I've achieved great things with Bezanija in Football Manager and that I know that they are in a rough spot. I offered my help as I know a bit about data analysis and statistics. The director liked the message very much and asked me if I could come to the game on Saturday (12 October). Of course, I said yes!", he said in an e-mail interaction with Firstpost.
The same day, the director called Pavlovic. "He laughed at first, said he doesn't know much about PC games, but he really liked my enthusiasm. He also said that he believes that my knowledge from the game is relevant and he wants to work with me!"
Pavlovic is not the first to be employed by a football club based on his prowess in the Football Manager. In 2012, Azerbaijan based FC Baku handed Vugar Huseynzade the reins of the team in a General Manager capacity at all of 21. He served an 18-month contract before departing in late 2014.
In the first game, Bežanija scored in the 91st minute to beat FK Dedinje 2-1 at home. In his first assignment, Pavlovic ran the numbers on the team's attack, defence and impact from corners. Impressed with his work, the club asked him to work with the U-21 team as well and to take on more responsibilities. Since then, the 22-year-old has built an Instagram presence (with 2300 followers at the time of writing), a patreon page to serve as a crowdfunding measure (raising nearly $150) and introduce sponsorship for the team jersey and worldwide sales. Improved coverage has resulted in a 50 euros per month shirt sponsorship deal with kits being shipped to as far as Brazil.
Employing numbers is not new to sports or football. For long, commentators have used stats while covering games. In the past decade or so, things have become more scientific and data points have increased by a large amount. With the advent of companies like StatsBomb and Opta, football clubs and personnel can use data to make big decisions including scouting and recruitment with transfers running into millions.
"Data analysis is pretty important but it needs to be utilised right, like in 'Moneyball' where they did great things purely on statistics of the players. I think the response is getting better, data analysis will become more and more important in the modern game of football," says Pavlovic.
Moneyball here refers to the book by Michael Lewis about baseball team Oakland Athletics and their General Manager Billy Beane. In it, the team uses analytics and evidence to bring a team together in 2002 which led them to the playoffs in the same year and the next despite a small budget in comparison to the giants like New York Yankees.
Away from the riches of big European leagues, things aren't quite rosy. With broadcast patchy and inconsistent, accumulating data becomes a tough ask. At the lower level, with poor budget, the option to dig deep takes a further hit. "I gather all the data at the stadium since technology in Serbia is quite low even for SuperLiga teams. Imagine how it is for sixth tier teams! But I would really like to have better tech available to me in the future," states Pavlovic.
At Bežanija, the data collected and the analysis thereon are brought about to the coaches who use it to strategise accordingly. "The coaches use it (the data) to improve the squad, and focus on better zones in attack and defence. The coaches of FK Bežanija became my friends now, we all work together and try to develop our players," he says on the acceptability of new methods being introduced to the training staff.
In the month since having Pavlovic on board, Bežanija have moved to sixth in the league standings with 16 points from last six games (five wins and a draw). Their record now reads: Six wins, three drawn, four lost with 26 goals scored and 21 goals conceded for a total 21 points. With winter break till March, the club will play a smaller league called 'Winter League of Belgrade' to stay fit and keep form.
"It has been a dream so far! I've learned so much but I would say the most important lesson is to believe in myself. Also, it has been amazing how good it feels to have some kind of respect from the players. I would love to (make it full time). I do this as a volunteer for now but I would love to live from this one day! If someone told me that a month and a half earlier I would be doing this, I would ask them if they lost their minds! I hope I can end up working (on) this in the future and I would really love to live off this someday," signs off Pavlovic.
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Updated Date: Dec 03, 2019 12:05:57 IST