Big Data

Sports analytics help Germany win the World Cup

Thomas Bosshard
  • Thomas Bosshard


  • Big Data

Now that the World Cup in Brazil has come to an end, both sports and technology bloggers alike seem to have one big question: Did Big Data give the German national team the competitive edge to win the World Cup? Media reports confirm the winning team’s use of the customized analytics software Match Insights, engineered by business software giant SAP. Based on SAP’s HANA technology, Match Insights helped the Germans extract insights into their opponents’ performance from data gathered before and during the tournament.

Drawing parallels to the real events described in Michael Lewis’ bestseller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game seems inevitable. The book explores a baseball executive’s pioneering effort in 2002 to acquire undervalued players for their statistically validated strengths in order to form a winning team. Against the advice of seasoned insiders and the constraints of a low budget, the team won game after game and irreversibly changed the face of baseball. When Hollywood released a film version starring Brad Pitt, using statistical analysis to enhance team performance gained popular recognition as well as regular coverage in sports media.

More than a century later, and following major leaps in technology, could big data be similarly revolutionizing football? While all teams competing in the World Cup had a dedicated video and performance analyst, Match Insights converted the footage from eight video cameras surrounding the pitch into key performance indicators such as speed of passing, average ball possession, speed and distance travelled, positioning and number of ball touches. This data was available to the German team’s management, coach and to individual players’ mobile devices via a custom-built app. The movements of opponents were converted into personas, simulations and graphs, which made the application as easy to use as a video game.

The amount of data analyzed was enormous. According to Oliver Bierhoff, the German national team’s manager and SAP brand ambassador, 10 players can produce over 7 million data points in just 10 minutes. However, analysis was not restricted to real-time data from World Cup matches. For almost two years, students of the German Sports University Cologne collected data from countless videos of Germany’s rival Brazil, noticing patterns that reportedly played a key role in the team’s preparations for the World Cup. And Germany’s ability to dismantle Brazil’s defense was indeed extraordinary.

Collaboration between the German Football Association (DFB) and SAP began in October 2013. The prototype was delivered in March. However, going forward SAP plans to make Match Insights available to other clubs, sports journalists and fans.

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