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Taking a Byte Out of Soccer

World Cup: Afshin Ghotbi is helping provide information to South Korea's team through a computer program that's paying huge dividends.

June 25, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — When Afshin Ghotbi arrived in the United States a quarter-century ago, he had with him something that has carried him all the way to the semifinals of the World Cup.

It's called a love of the game, a passion for soccer that he acquired on the streets and playgrounds of his native Tehran.

Ghotbi was 13 when his family moved to California, and in all the years since, he has tried to instill that same love of soccer in youngsters in the U.S., first by playing alongside them and later by coaching them.

Ghotbi discovered and developed U.S. World Cup midfielder John O'Brien, now starting for Dutch powerhouse Ajax Amsterdam. Ghotbi discovered and developed U.S. Olympic team midfielder Peter Vagenas, now playing for the Galaxy.

Both came to the fore at the American Global Soccer School that Ghotbi founded in 1988 and is now run for him by former Galaxy defender Dan Calichman.

There have been other success stories, many of them, but none that strains the imagination as much as the story Ghotbi is helping to write here.

At 38, he has stumbled upon something that could revolutionize soccer worldwide. It's all stored in the laptop computer that almost never leaves his side.

That computer, along with the software within, has plucked Ghotbi out of his home in Rancho Santa Margarita and deposited him on the bench of one of the most successful teams in Korea/Japan '02.

Instead of watching the World Cup on television, the former Glendale High and UCLA player is right here in the thick of it, helping Coach Guus Hiddink make the decisions that have carried South Korea to the final four.

Ghotbi is one of 10 members of South Korea's technical staff, an assistant coach in fact if not in name. He is the team's "match analyst," a position new to soccer but likely to become increasingly prevalent.

While Ahn Jung-Hwan has been scoring goals, while Hong Myung-Bo has been making tackles and while Lee Woon-Jae has been producing saves--in short, while South Korea has been disposing of such European "powers" as Poland and Portugal, Italy and Spain--Ghotbi has kept his hard drive humming and clicking quietly in the background, providing the technological underpinning to Hiddink's Korean miracle.

Three things put Ghotbi in this position: a thorough knowledge of soccer, an engineering degree from UCLA and the expertise to understand and use a complicated but intriguing computer program.

He is on the cutting edge of the sport, right at its forward outpost, technologically speaking.

In Japan, a company is developing two-legged humanoid robots that will have the ability to play soccer. In a sense, what Ghotbi has inside his computer is an early version of a soccer brain for such robots. But it is being used to help real flesh-and-blood players, not science-fiction creations.

On a rainy Monday afternoon in Seoul, Ghotbi took time out to give a reporter a little insight into what he does.

He flipped open a laptop and began hitting keys. In rapid succession, graphics appeared, then videos. Before long, it was apparent that what Ghotbi had in hand was every byte of information on every World Cup team and player.

Not only in the form of charts and graphs but in full-color, full-screen video, capable of being manipulated in a dozen ways at the touch of a button and then projected onto a large screen for players and coaches to study.

Want to know what German striker Miroslav Klose will do on a corner kick from the right? Click here. Want to see how the Italian defense reacts when attacked up the middle? Click here. Want to learn how U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna positions himself when taking a free kick from the left flank? Click here.

It's all there, an invaluable database that Ghotbi has compiled during the year and a half he has been working for Hiddink and South Korea.

His enthusiasm for his job and the software program, developed in Australia, is plain to see. So is the influence Hiddink and his Dutch assistants have had on Ghotbi. He speaks of football but he means soccer.

"What it does is allow you to digitize or bring in video images--from satellite, VHS tape, or a digital camera that you can use yourself," he said of the program. "You put [the images] in the hard drive in your computer and, as they are coming in, you code them.

"So you actually are like a football librarian, placing images in categories that you think are interesting or important to you.... Then later, when the coach wants to see any book, any chapter, any page, any sentence, any word, it's there.

"You can take the image and play it in slow motion, play it backwards, freeze it, and you can draw on it, print it, everything. It's brilliant."

Steve Sampson, former U.S. national team coach, sent Ghotbi down this technology trail four years ago, just before the France '98 World Cup, with a software program recommended to Sampson by Norway's coach, Egil Olsen.

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