"I didn't come here to fucking sit on the bench." Der Afro has receded since Paul Breitner's World Cup winning heyday, but his competitive spirit seems to be doing just fine.
Breitner will turn 65 in September. He’s basically playing a pick-up game, on a summer night at Chelsea Piers in New York City. It’s a pick-up game organized by Audi and MLS, which is why he’s here, along with Olympian Lolo Jones, Philadelphia Union’s Maurice Edu and CJ Sapong, and a bunch of journalists, bloggers and people PR agencies like to describe as "influencers".
With the active pro soccer players coaching from the sidelines, and the field mostly cluttered with people more comfortable at a keyboard, the standard of play is not great. Breitner probably gets a more challenging kickaround from his grandchildren. But he’s not thrilled with being subbed for the closing minutes of the first half nonetheless. Not angry. There is nothing intemperate about his tone; he speaks just loud enough for coach Mo Edu to hear him. He lets his feelings be known. Plainly. And then he walks away.
Coach Mo is tactfully quiet. You want to pick a fight with the guy who appointed himself to take a penalty in a World Cup final when his team had Gerd Muller available? Breitner made that kick and lifted the 1974 World Cup. Coach Mo just lifts his hands and lets the winner of five Bundesliga titles (and that World Cup, and two La Liga titles, and...he won a lot - let Wikipedia tell you about it) walk into the night.
The point of this game that just lost one of the most accomplished players in soccer’s history is to showcase the Audi Player Index. Avid MLS-watchers may be familiar with it. The Index often gets a lot of play during halftime of the league’s games, or is referenced online to support an argument for one player or team’s strengths or weaknesses.
We’re here at Chelsea Piers to get up close to the Index. Really close. We have the device that tracks and calculates our every move strapped to our backs, and a screen broadcasting the machine’s evaluation of our performance on our bellies. The apparatus feels more like football pads than a jersey. And there is the burden of expectation, the fear of failure, the constant anxiety about the machine’s interpretation of that pass or shot or whatever. Most of us here are in the business of blithely judging others from the safety of the internet. I can’t speak for the rest, but for me the experience of being constantly monitored, with my stomach broadcasting a by-the-second analysis of my every kick, is terrifying.
At least Breitner’s gone. He’s on my team, but he’s also the most obvious choice for a quick comparison of scores. I may not always know the score of this game, but I know the exact difference between the number on Breitner’s belly and that on mine. One of us had to go. There’s a match to be played.
Before kick-off, I was excited to get to grips with the Index. We’re wearing heavier versions of those the players take to the field in MLS. Still, you wonder if they feel the pressure - real and imagined - of the machine on their backs.
We were divided into two squads at the start. One team in white, coached by Sapong. The other in red, coached by Edu. I’m on the red team.
Coach Mo revealed himself as a diplomat well before the Breitner incident. Before the first whistle, he has us huddled around him. It’s a beautiful scene. Under the night sky of New York City, at a venue probably best known for hosting a helicopter crash in The Other Guys. I can’t totally shake quotes from that film from my head for the whole night, but in the calm of our pre-match huddle with his bright white Philadelphia Union polo, Coach Mo has my attention. Mostly, the crest on his shirt has my attention: it’s the Union crest.
"We need a team name, guys," he tells us. With his Union crest. I can’t hold back any longer: "We’re wearing red, how about the Red Bulls?"
Takes a lot more than that to rattle coach Mo. He chuckles. "Nooooooo way."
The next suggestion submitted was "Moist Towelettes". Coach Mo didn’t love this, but his team was blanked for a few awkward seconds. Then another player said, without much confidence, "how about Bloods"? "Bloods" it was.
It didn't take long for it to become clear this game was not going to be pretty. We’re playing 11-a-side on a pitch sized for 7-v-7. We’re mostly not soccer players, or even athletes, of anything approaching even a semi-pro caliber. Maybe that’s why Breitner came off the field a little on edge: this was not the sort of game he’s used to playing. Neither team had much by way of shape, identity, or possession. But it was a lot of fun.
If we didn’t provide a lot of entertainment on the pitch, coaches Sapong and Edu provided much to enjoy from the sidelines. They never quite brought their managerial gesticulations and sideline antics to the level of Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, but they did have a proper go.
And they made pleading with the referee an art. When Sapong’s side was awarded a penalty, Edu bounded on to the field, "WHAT! WHAT! WHAT!" Coach CJ, pacing up and down his sideline, countered with a steady clap and a soft "yep, yep, yep." Briefly, they had the beginnings of a successful acappella group.
Maybe Breitner quit the scene to see if he could get Edu and Sapong into Pentatonix. Wherever he went, he’s back for the second half. This is bad news for my concentration on the game, but good news for the point of my being here. I need to focus on the Index anyway. Coach Mo keeps our World Cup winner on the field for the duration of the second half, while I watch bellies and try to figure out how this machine reaches its conclusions.
The technology is pretty rad. The Audi Player Index is in its nascent phase but it’s easy to see the potential.
Currently, it seems to have a fairly primitive way of scoring: goal = good; losing the ball = bad. But it was able to pick up when a player was responsible for being dribbled around as well as passes completed and such. It heavily rewards goals, though; and doesn’t seem to care much for the context surrounding it.
For instance, there was a play in which a player spun a pinpoint through-ball, putting the striker in on goal. The 1v1 with the ‘keeper was flubbed, but the ball rolled to another bystanding teammate, who had no involvement on the build up whatsoever nor any movement to find the right position. Gifted with better luck than judgment, that teammate tapped the ball in.
From the machine’s perspective, the person who unlocked the defense with the through-ball got just about nothing by way of points. The person who landed the tap-in was rewarded with a bucket of points on their score.
It’s the old argument about Xavi at Barcelona. How do you quantify a player whose brilliance isn’t calculated in goals or assists? Xavi played too deep to have many direct assists, plus Barcelona play unselfishly and almost always make the extra pass. So he’d be someone that the Audi Player Index wouldn’t recognize as one of the best players on the field. His 45-yard diagonal pass directly to a winger’s foot in perfect stride, unlocking the defense and setting up the scoring opportunity, would be weighed many pounds lighter than that winger’s rudimentary five-yard pass to Lionel Messi joining the play for a tap in.
It’ll be interesting to see if the technology can catch up to the beautiful game— I have my doubts that there’s any algorithm out there that can truly quantify vision, decision-making, positioning, off-the-ball movement and the way tactics interfere with general play.
For instance, when Leicester City beat Chelsea in the Premier League last season 2-1, they held just 34% of the possession. Their success that title-winning season was laid upon the foundation of counter-attacking football. Sound defensive play was the ground floor and support beams, then the incisive, direct route to their exciting attackers was the luxury portions of the house. On that day, any Chelsea midfielder would have likely trebled any Leicester midfielder’s pass totals, touches and any other measurable statistic in possession.
But what would you rather have: 15 mundane passes that travel 10 yards and do nothing to unsettle a defense, or one 45-yard through-ball to Jamie Vardy with space to run into? Things like that weren’t much accounted for, either.
Of course, it’s still relatively early days for the Audi Player Index and the whole field of real-time, in-game analytics. And the future of the technology was certainly not decided by the events of a kickaround at Chelsea Piers.
For what it’s worth, Breitner’s Audi Performance Index score read a paltry 53 at the end of the game. I scored a 537. Our team lost the match, 6-2. Two players on the other side breached the 1,000 point mark.
When the match concluded, the final whistle was met with smiles all around. This was as friendly a friendly as there has ever been. Players might still be shaking hands and congratulating each other if the good folks organizing the event hadn’t plopped down trays of water and beer on the bench.
Maybe it was because I’d had eyes on him for most of the night, but Breitner and I had the same idea when we saw the refreshments: bottles with the words "Munich" and "Lager" on them. We clanged our bottles together, took a swig and smiled.
For a moment, I thought about telling him 53 really wasn’t good enough. Our team couldn’t be expected to perform with the millstone of a 53 on the Player Index round its neck. We were all already carrying machines on our backs, after all. But the beer was cold and I’d already seen Breitner hot once for the night.
Maybe some other time.