Arriving a bit late to the party, soccer’s governing bodies have finally recognized the importance of technology in contrast with many other team sports. Both on and off the pitch, the FIFA World Cup in Russia saw technology — GPS and location in particular — making a huge impact.
July 13, 2014. FIFA World Cup final. Argentina and Germany were locked in a scoreless draw till the 112th minute when two relatively unknown substitutes, both first timers in a World Cup, took it upon themselves to rewrite the script. A 23-year-old Andre Schurrle made a blistering run down the left and sent that perfect cross into the Argentine box. In a perfect copybook style, Mario Gotze, all of 22, received the ball on his chest before turning to deliver that perfect volley into the net. One goal was all that took to Germany to win the World Cup, its fourth.
German coach Joachim Low ended up looking like a genius at the end because of those “magic” substitutions, with Gotze becoming the only substitute in the history of FIFA to score a World Cup-winning goal. But what many din’t know was the reason behind Low’s substitutions over his other more experienced options on the bench. As part of their pre-World Cup practice sessions, the German team wore GPS-aided wearable devices to monitor everything, from positional accuracy, speed, distance, to heart rates of players, among other things. The data was then analyzed to see how exactly each athlete performed at what point, and the information then used to plan future strategies for the team.
However, this story is typically what legends are made of. And legends are not repeated every day. Four years down the line, Joachim Low today must be one of the most hated men in Germany with his team’s dismal performance in Russia making them the butt of all jokes and memes.
But, one thing that is running common is the reliance on technology by the planet’s biggest game. The advantage that Low had four years back is today in the hands of every team manager.
Arriving a bit late to the party, soccer’s governing bodies have finally recognized the importance of technology in contrast with many other team sports. Both on and off the pitch, the World Cup in Russia has seen technology — GPS and location in particular — playing a bigger role than ever. While goal-line technology, which has at its heart precise positioning, hit the headlines in the championship, use of wearables, player positional data and metrics for tactical analysis are some of the others that made news.
Electronic performance and tracking systems
GPS-based wearables have been a common sight in practice sessions for some time now, but it was not allowed in competitive sports till very recently, including the previous World Cup in Brazil. It was only in February 2015, the International Football Association Board approved the use of electronic tracking in official fixtures, just in time for that year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada.
In March 2018, just three months before the World Cup in Russia began, FIFA allowed electronic performance and tracking systems in matches. Team analysts were now allowed to transmit data and communicate with coaches during the match itself.
Consequently, the 2018 World Cup in Russia saw all the 32 teams making the best use of this technology. Each team was allowed three tablets — one for an analyst on the stand and one on the bench, and the third for the medical team — which had real-time information (subject to a 30-second delay) about player metrics, positional data, and video footage.
GPS-based wearables — whether shirts, watches or any other sensor on the body of the players — record some hundreds of data per second — from position of the player, distance covered, speed and number of accelerations, heart rate, kick accuracy, to impact from tackles. By running this data on analysis platforms, coaches can plan team strategies, substitutions, design physical workouts sessions and such, according to the demands of each player’s position. GPS can also track game fatigue by showing the difference between the highest running intensities during first and last 15 minutes of the game. The differences can indicate player exhaustion and team fitness.
A number of teams, including Germany, Brazil, Euro champions Portugal, Belgium, England, Poland, Denmark and Morocco were availing of STATSports technology during the World Cup, which is a black compression vest worn under the regular jersey. Various other teams were using a number of other products from companies such as Catapult, Zepp, FieldWiz, etc.
Goal-line technology or GLT, which made waves at the World Cup, is the use of technology to determine if the ball has crossed the goal line or not. This information is then transmitted within a split second to a special watch worn by the referee to ensure immediate response. There are no stoppages or other forms of interference in the game. The match officials are the only ones to receive a signal. Viewers can see replay if the match organizers decide to show it.
Compared to use of similar technology in other competitive sports, GLT is recent addition to soccer — goal-line technology was approved in July 2012 provided it did not interfere with the game. Following this, the technology was adopted to be used in FIFA Word Cup 2014 in Brazil. Because of the high costs associated, GLT is used only at the highest levels of the game like the top European domestic leagues.
There are two types of GLT — Camera based and magnetic field based.
Camera-based: FIFA currently uses the GoalControl technology for the World Cups. There are 14 high-speed cameras located around the ground, with seven cameras focusing on each goal to detect the ball’s exact location around that area. A software then analyzes all the footages to give a verdict on whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. All this within a second!
The computer uses triangulation method to calculate the ball’s precise position. Triangulation is a geometrical method of calculating the position of an object by measuring a network of triangles. The process involves measuring the length of one side of each triangle and then deducing its angles and the length of the other two sides by observation from this baseline. The system software then creates a 3D image of the ball relative to the goal line by calculating the ball’s location in each frame by identifying the pixels that correspond to the ball.
Camera technology via triangulation produces highly reliable results even when the players’ bodies are obstructing the views of some cameras. Because only three cameras are required to implement triangulation, even if the view of a few cameras is hindered, the others can take over seamlessly. If the ball has fully crossed the goal line, an encrypted signal is immediately transmitted to the referee via a watch or an earpiece.
Magnetic fields: For magnetic field system, cables are placed underground and around the goal. The ball also has electronic sensors in it. The interaction between the receptors in the ball and the magnetic fields created through the underground cables allows the software to calculate the exact position of the ball and determine when a goal has been scored.
This technology has been developed by Cairos Technologies AG in partnership with Adidas. The ball, specially designed by Adidas, has a suspended delicate sensor inside it that can withstand vigorous kicks.
The sensor inside the moving ball disturbs the magnetic field around the goal mouth. This signal is then transmitted to a computer which decides whether the ball fully crossed the line or not. An affirmative answer is immediately followed by a goal alert on the referee’s watch. However, FIFA or top soccer leagues are yet to use this technology widely since there have been doubts over its accuracy.
From the outside, it looks like a normal soccer ball. But Adidas, which has been manufacturing the official ball for the World Cup since 1970, decided to go smart with the ball this year. The Adidas Telstar 18, the official ball for the Russia World Cup, has an embedded Near Field Communication (NFC) chip. At present, it is purely for consumer use and won’t have any impact on the matches themselves.
It is more of a fan experience that works with both Android and iOS devices. A user has to connect the smart ball to his Android or iOS device to get instant feedback on power, spin, strike and trajectory of his kicks, along with tips and guidance. The app instructs a player where and how his foot should strike to curve the ball. The trajectory can be mapped out for a user to see exactly where the ball has travelled. One can zoom in via a two-finger pinch on the smartphone’s screen and even rotate as a 3D model to get an in-depth look at what’s going on.
However, one wonders what’s so great about the Telstar 18 when the Adidas Mi Coach has been around for a while now. Mi-Coach had a built-in sensor that could give information to the players about their kicks and headers. Thousands of data points could be collected and synthesized into training feedback.
The game’s getting exciting
This is only the beginning. Wearables are a growing field in sports, and even though it is late, FIFA is eager to cover up. To this end it is looking to establish a standard for electronic performance and tracking systems (EPTS) and thereby looking to provide guidance to football’s stakeholders in regard to the use of EPTS in competitive matches. Though the FIFA guidelines for now maintains that “information and data collected transmitted from the devices/systems is not permitted to be received or used in the technical area during a match”, with time some of this technology would make way into live matches.
Will too much of technology let the beautiful game remain as beautiful? The debate is on!