Tonsser United: The app helping amateur players beat the world’s best

Tonsser United have already got a result against Paris Saint-Germain, now this app for amateur players wants to become the world’s largest club. Co-founder Peter Holm explains how his idea is providing opportunities for those the system left behind…

Vinci Cup 2019: Tonsser United 1 -1 PSG (Player from PSG is Noah Lemina, little brother of Mario Lemina and highly rated youth player)
Image: Paris Saint-Germain's youngsters had a shock when they scraped a draw against young amateur players discovered on the Tonsser app

Paris Saint-Germain spend a small fortune on their academy so they could be forgiven for wondering what was happening as their U15 side strolled onto the field for their first game at the 2019 Vinci Cup. "Are we playing against an app?" one of the players was heard to ask.

Sort of. They were up against Tonsser United.

Tonsser was founded in 2014 by Peter Holm and Simon Hjaere, two football-mad students from Copenhagen with a vision to bring the professional experience to the game's millions of amateur players. They created an app that would record and showcase their statistics.

It was a huge success but Tonsser United is the next phase. "We created an experiment where, through the app, users could apply to join Tonsser United," Holm tells Sky Sports.

Thousands applied.

"We were able to create a team who would then participate in youth tournaments against professional teams. There was only one rule. Players could not be part of an academy."

What happened next was a shock. Tonsser United led inside five minutes and PSG only salvaged a draw in the final moments of the match. The players were disappointed but Peter Holm, founder of Tonsser, had proven his point. Major talents were being missed.

Also See:

"These are the underrated players, the underdogs. Through technology, through data, through just giving unsigned players who had never met each other before, the opportunity to play, we were able to challenge some of the best academy players in the world."

That draw against PSG was just one instance. Later in that same tournament, this team beat Lille and lost narrowly to Juventus. A completely different set of players saw off Fulham in the semi-final of the Madewis Cup before losing 3-2 to hosts Lyon in the final.

Vinci Cup 2019: Tonsser United 0 -1 Juventus
Image: Tonsser United also lost out by the odd goal to Juventus in the Vinci Cup in 2019

The success of these unsigned young players has exposed something that might now seem obvious but is often overlooked. There are around 55,000 paid professional footballers in the world but they are dwarfed by the millions of amateur players hoping for their chance.

Among that huge number lurk potential superstars.

"The 55,000 are the tip of the iceberg," Holm explains.

"Below that you have 100 million youth players in the world who are all part of an ecosystem that is not transparent, that is unmapped and where players are not empowered in the same way to find opportunities and unlock their potential."

This was the catalyst for the start of Tonsser.

"Simon and I were doing a degree on tech start-ups, working on different projects but we always came back to playing FIFA and Football Manager. We were consumed by football and the more time we spent exploring that side of it, the more curious we became."

Ostensibly, the science behind their app seems relatively straightforward. Players capture their games on video, log goals and assists, as well as picking out the three best players from each match. "Things that young people are used to seeing on Football Manager," says Holm.

But that detail has been enough to tease out talent that is now beginning to provide an alternative pathway into the professional game. As many as 65 per cent of the players who have represented Tonsser United have since had trials or gone on to be signed by clubs.

Tonsser United at the Vinci Cup in 2019
Image: Tonsser United celebrate during their successful run at the Vinci Cup

Fin Stevens made his debut for Brentford this season as they won promotion to the Premier League. Samy Mahour was discovered playing amateur football in Paris and has since made his debut for Gent's first team in Belgium and is now an U20 international with Algeria.

Merlin Rohl was one of 75 Tonsser users to feature in a trial day with Ingolstadt and has since gone on to play for the first team and be capped by Germany at U19 level.

There is the tale of Phun Mang, from the island of Bornholm off the coast of Denmark. He was identified through the Tonsser app and played for them in a youth tournament. He has since gone on to debut for Esbjerg in Denmark's second division at the age of 16.

These are the players who the system had missed.

"There are so many of these stories," says Holm, his pride obvious. "There are so many situations and examples that do not obey the usual rules. This is about helping those players who are not currently in a club environment to get those opportunities as well."

Is avoiding Group F the best bet?

Is avoiding Group F the best bet?

Why England might need to finish second in the group to plot an either path to glory

In France, in particular, the app has been embraced.

"Sometimes I think Tonsser is best made for those countries where it is built into their hopes and dreams, and that is why it is suited to France. In that country, you have too many good players given how many clubs you have."

The arrondissements around Paris are heaving with untapped talent just like Mahour, youngsters with aspirations but without an outlet for their ambition - until now.

"When I see French football today I see many similarities with the favela football in Brazil. There is this urban trend with people playing on the streets. There is this exciting culture around football. This street football in the districts around Paris is flourishing."

Tonsser has provided the professional experience that they crave.

"We know that young people today are different. They are now in a digital age. Just playing 90 minutes on a field in the soaking rain as a right-back and losing all the time is not going to be an experience that they enjoy for four or five years.

"We needed something that would allow players to capture their performances, where they would be treated like professionals, meaning that they could see their rankings, where they are in the league, in their team, all that data, videos. Almost the same as professionals."

Tonsser United at the Madewis Cup in 2019
Image: Tonsser United at the Madewis Cup in 2019 where they beat Fulham

The plan had been to partner with clubs but these enterprising Danes faced resistance from those sceptical that an app could succeed where traditional scouting had failed.

"We found it really difficult to convince them because we did not have a lot of proof, which was fair enough. So we said, 'Right, let's just demonstrate the power of Tonsser'."

The sceptics had underestimated the power of scale. The 75 triallists at Ingolstadt that resulted in Rohl and three others being retained came from a pool of 23,000 applicants. In total, over half a million youngsters have applied to play for Tonsser United.

The more innovative clubs in Europe understand now.

"We are working with AZ Alkmaar in Holland, Gent in Belgium, FC Midtjylland in Denmark. You have these clubs that build their organisation slightly differently and realise that they need to compete in different ways to the clubs that have the financial muscle.

"We are not reaching out to clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus because it is not where we believe we can help them the most. We are working with Crystal Palace and Huddersfield in England because we see it as a natural fit.

"It took a pandemic for some of these clubs to realise that their talent identification, their scouting was inefficient. It was a time to listen to those voices within clubs that were saying that they should reconsider how they were doing things, looking more at tech and digital.

"The clubs that we work with are clubs that are not necessarily interested in following the blueprint model, they are clubs that are interested in being innovative and finding new ways to work using tech and digital tools. Also, being more open to new initiatives.

"They are the clubs that we have seen reacting quicker. How you handle a crisis like this and how you look to come out the other side says a lot about who you are."

But who are Tonsser now? That is an idea that is evolving too.

There are logical improvements to the app that will provide more detail for the user - "ball tracking, more sophisticated data" - but there are also grander plans.

The success of Tonsser United has convinced Holm that there is a responsibility to provide more than just access to an app. Conscious of those half a million applications to join the team, he wants to provide many more opportunities for players to chase their dream.

"We were only able to create 700 opportunities for them, so there is a clear mismatch between the cry of demand from players and how we are able to help them with that. That tells us that we need to deliver way more opportunities when there is this much demand.

"Our goal over the next five years is to create Tonsser United as what we call a 21st century football club. One without a stadium, without facilities and without a staff. A club born out of a digital community than any aspirational player around the world can play for.

"Today, a club is looked at by how many fans they have. We want to create the largest club by player members. We want Tonsser United to be the world's largest football club."

By then, even Paris Saint-Germain will know what they are up against.

Win £100,000 with Super 6!

Win £100,000 with Super 6!

Super 6 is back for Euro 2020. Could you land the £100,000 on Sunday? Play for free, entries by 2pm.

Around Sky