Technology dominates discussions in Tunisia

In 2006, as part of its ‘Win in Africa with Africa’ initiative, FIFA decided to implement a wide-ranging player registration project at a continental level. In 2010, FIFA’s international Transfer Matching System (TMS) came into effect.

Both could be described as necessary reforms, but they have also heralded a new era for the use of technology in African football, a subject discussed in detail during the recent FIFA seminar in Hammamet, Tunisia, held from 6 to 8 October.

“Major reforms often require a certain measure of compulsion. But when it’s FIFA that’s enforcing the changes, there’s much less resistance and we’re able to move forward quickly,” explained Abdouraman Hamadou, chief of staff for the President of the Cameroon Football Association. "Over the last decade, I’ve seen African football undergo great change. In the past, certain associations were not really that visible – you only became aware of their existence during matches that involved their own national team. Today, they have a voice, and they make themselves heard."

For 10 years, Hamadou has both observed and played a part in the game’s progress in Africa, helping to modernise the way football is run in his homeland. As part of FIFA’s seminar in Tunisia on football-related technology in Africa, he and other key players in the domain were asked to share their thoughts and experiences with those present.

An African system for African issues
Hamadou recalled the association’s first tentative steps into the world of technology: “In 2001, together with a company in Cameroon, we put in place a player registration and licensing system. But it was extremely limited, too slow and called for too much human input, which inevitably increased the overall level of error.

"There were also problems relating to archiving and to the reliability of easily falsifiable registration papers. The biggest drawback was that the system was not able to cover every footballer, only those at the very top, and when we asked the provider to make some improvements, it became very clear that we should take a different route.”

This was particularly obvious when the governing body found itself in possession of numerous licences from various different clubs, all for the same player. “Many footballers left the country to play for foreign teams, for example," he said. "A club would then come along with a licence and declare that the player was a product of their youth set-up. Then another, also with a licence to prove it. Then another, and so on. And our system was not sufficiently advanced to allow us to properly check these claims."

Just imagine, clubs in Cameroon are now part of the same system that includes Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

It was at this point that FIFA became involved, via the ‘Win in Africa with Africa’ programme, offering to fund the implementation of a system – in every country in Africa – that would register players, generate licences and manage tournaments. Developed by Narsil Technology, a Tunisia-based company, the system was adapted with the African football landscape in mind, and was produced with the assistance of FIFA’s IT department, represented in Hammamet by Daniel Kieser. “The experience and support of the relevant association are vitally important, as we try to move football in the direction of advanced technology such as this,” pointed out Kieser.

“It’s only by listening to those working on the ground that we can create solutions to suit the world of football,” explained Izhar Mahjoub of Narsil Technology. "What are the real problems being experienced? And how can we, on the technical side of things, translate them into a language technology understands? That, in a nutshell, is how the system works."

“I had already come across Narsil’s system in 2006, during a meeting with Izhar Mahjoub,” continued Hamadou. “We were very interested in their proposed solutions and in their general approach. And while we were already discussing the idea of persuading Cameroon’s politicians to provide financial assistance, in 2007 FIFA took the decision to fund the project across the entire continent of Africa."

The new system was implemented in Cameroon in 2009. And although things are not yet running perfectly, the scope has changed significantly when compared to 2001. “Not only can we now register the players in our top two tiers, something we weren’t really able to do before, but we can include senior-level regional players, and most importantly, young players.”

Alongside Bayern and Manchester Utd
Now a further technological boost will be provided by TMS, a mandatory transfer registration tool introduced across the globe this year by FIFA. “Fifty-one of the 53 football associations in Africa are now taking part in the TMS,” said Mark Goddard, TMS General Manager, present at the seminar to offer information and advice. “Each national association represented here in this room has already completed at least one transfer using our system. Global coverage in football has become a reality."

So what do participating associations actually think of the TMS? “The TMS increases transparency, makes monitoring transfers easier, and puts the onus on clubs to organise themselves better and take more responsibility,” said Hamadou. “Just imagine, clubs in Cameroon are now part of the same system that includes Bayern Munich and Manchester United. They need to begin to think in the same professional manner, and I can assure you that it's a concept that appeals to them.”

Such projects are unlikely to change the way in which football does business overnight, but are rather part of a long-term plan, led by FIFA, its confederations and member associations, to apply modern technology across the board in the world of football. Calculating how many licensed players there are on the planet, curbing age-related fraud, ensuring that correct solidarity payments are made to previous clubs, increasing transparency in international transfers and protecting minors are all high-priority issues for FIFA, and systems such as TMS represent a major leap forward in tackling them.

The last word on the subject goes to Hamadou: “National associations and clubs must take responsibility. Issues such as transfers and player licences now need to be taken much more seriously.”