The beautiful game gets smart

At the World Cup, the most advanced sports technology yet seen will be in action to tackle some of football’s perennial problems – and to give TV pundits even more to talk about.

When the Italian team steps on to the pitch for their first game of the World Cup on June 3, it may well be the shirts, not the multimillion-pound players, that will attract the attention.

That might seem to be stretching the point a little, but the high-tech Lycra shirts, designed to pull demonstrably out of shape if an opposing player tries to hold back one of the Italian team members by tugging at them, generated almost as much press interest before the recent friendly against England as did star player Christian Vieri’s decision not to play.

The shirts, made of a blend of Lycra and microfibre, took sportswear firm Kappa three years to develop, and can stretch up to 50cm more than other fabrics. This increased elasticity will allow referees to see clearly when a player is being held back, while officials may even hear a ‘ping’ when the offending footballer lets go.

The interest sparked by these innovative shirts has highlighted the growing impact of sports technology within football. Although purists still fear the beautiful game could be ruined by allowing technology to dictate decisions made by referees and officials during games, new developments are making footballs more responsive, boots more lightweight and clothing more ‘intelligent’.

Indeed, technology is now having an impact on all areas of the game, from the training ground to the stadium, enhancing footballers’ skills and helping teams gain an extra ‘edge’ over the opposition. And the area of the game where technology is likely to have the most visible impact over the next few years is in the pitches themselves, says Dr Steve Haake, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Sheffield University, and chairman of the International Sports Engineering Association. ‘Games are becoming so important that pitches are crucial. If a pitch were not available for an important match, all hell would break loose.’

An increase in the number of games being played, and steeper all-seater stadia that allow in less light, have caused pitch problems for a number of domestic clubs, including Manchester United. As a result, many clubs are now turning to artificial surfaces, particularly following a recent ruling by ruling body Fifa that artificial surfaces can be used in World Cup qualifying games.

Recent technological advances in the materials used to make these new artificial pitches mean they are a far cry from the unpopular sand-filled plastic surfaces of the 1970s and 1980s, says Dr Eric Harrison, chairman of both the UK and European committees on sports services, and a consultant to Fifa. These surfaces gave players friction burns, were difficult for boot studs to grip and caused balls to bounce off in unexpected directions, he says. ‘The new generation of synthetic surfaces behave more like natural turf, with the added advantage of not being affected by the weather. With the older generation of surfaces the game was a lot faster, because the ball would run over the top of the surface, while players could not perform sliding tackles.’

Companies such as Canadian-based FieldTurf EEC have developed new pitches with longer turf, allowing the ball to run through the strands rather than surfing over the top. The strands are made of new hybrid fibres such as copolymers and polyethylene and polypropylene blends, which are softer than the rigid polymers used in older-style surfaces. The turfs are filled with loose recycled rubber crumb, which is much more comfortable to slide across than sand.

The marketing opportunities at sporting events such as the World Cup are enormous. Sports companies use the event as a global showcase for their latest products, banking on the international appeal of players such as Luis Figo, Thierry Henry and David Beckham to boost sales around the world. Some of the England team, including Michael Owen, will be wearing boots made from kangaroo skin and rubber. The material is designed to enhance accuracy and provide players with a greater feel for the ball, claims its maker Umbro. The boots also have eight studs, compared to the traditional six, which the company says gives footballers better grip.

Nike’s Mercurial Vapor boots, to be launched in South Korea and Japan, are the company’s lightest boots ever, weighing 194g each.

Most boots contain layers of foam ‘cement’ to provide padding around the feet, says Perry Augur, an engineer on the Mercurial Vapor project at Nike. ‘This foam is more cosmetic than anything, in that it provides the upper with a ‘pillowing’ feel. This gives the player a false sense of security in thinking that it is added protection.’

The company has developed a new synthetic material called Nike Skin, which is more resistant to abrasion than previous fabrics, and has a tensile strength that almost matches that of the layered upper, while weighing much less.

Rival sports manufacturer Adidas has developed the official match ball for this year’s World Cup, which the company claims is the most accurate football it has ever produced. The ball consists of a foam layer containing highly compressible gas-filled micro-balloons. These tiny balloons distribute energy evenly all over the ball, making it more responsive and enabling players to shoot more accurately.

Sports companies all launch new products in time for the World Cup, relying on innovation as their selling point, says Tim Roberts, business group manager for sports and leisure at technology specialist Qinetiq.

The company has developed and patented a ball pressure indicator, a durable device consisting of a small icon or dot mechanism. ‘When you change the pressure of the ball by pumping it up, the device changes colour. If it is below pressure it is an ordinary silver colour, when it comes into pressure it becomes red, and once it goes over pressure it becomes green,’ says Roberts.

The mechanism is small, cheap and lightweight and does not affect the ball’s dynamics. Having patented it, Qinetiq is talking to mainstream sports companies and their manufacturers about incorporating it into products, possibly in time for the European Championships in 2004.

The extreme heat and intense humidity of Japan and South Korea will present a particular problem for the teams at this year’s World Cup. These conditions are likely to be particularly difficult for players used to the milder climate of the UK, so the England team will be wearing new ice vests to keep them cool despite the heat.

The vests were developed at the Australian Institute for Sport, and are being commercialised by specialist Arctic Heat. Each vest is embedded with special gel crystals that are activated when dipped in water and can maintain a constant cold temperature for several hours.

Once the crystals have been activated, they can be kept cold by putting them into a freezer for five minutes, providing they are not allowed to dry out, says Richard Hawkins, deputy head of the Football Association’s Medical and Exercise Science Department. The ice jackets are lightweight and zip-fronted. ‘They will be used to decrease the core body temperature by up to 1 degree C, allowing more blood flow to the muscles being used and decreasing the need to sweat, so reducing fatigue through dehydration,’ he says.

The vests are made of sportwool, a material recently developed by Woolmark. This transfers moisture from the skin to an outer layer of microfibre, keeping the skin dry and preventing humid moisture forming.

But vests are not simply being developed to keep players cool. With footballers becoming increasingly valuable commodities, clubs need to make sure they are taken care of, says Dr Chris Bayber, a researcher into the interaction between humans and technology at Birmingham University.

Bayber is developing a lightweight vest capable of monitoring a player’s heart rate, body temperature and acceleration, and sending the results back to a remote computer via a wireless link.

The vest, which can be worn under a normal football shirt, is designed for use in ordinary training sessions. It will allow trainers to collect information about a player’s performance on the field, rather than having to go to the laboratory, so the data should be more ‘realistic’.

The vest contains a small electro-cardiograph with two wires attached to the chest, and has five instruments – on the shirt, arms and legs – to measure the footballer’s acceleration. A digital thermometer is fitted to the armpit. The top looks like an ordinary cropped athletics vest, but includes two devices (one an electro-cardiograph, the other an accelerometer), each the size of a pack of cards, held in pockets on either shoulder. ‘The accelerometer records changes in movement, so it can look at a throwing action and determine how fast the arm is moving, and can do the same for kicking and running,’ he says.

Interest in wearable technology has grown rapidly, and Bayber expects some diagnostic clothing to be commercially available within the next few years. ‘People can over-exert themselves, so diagnostic devices that tell you how you are performing, and how well you are, would obviously prove very useful.’

The project is part of a Europe-wide venture, including universities in Germany, Italy, Austria and Holland, into the use of computers in football. As part of this project researchers are also investigating the possibility of putting miniature computers within the footballs themselves.

And if this research is successful, technology could finally resolve the most vexing question in football – how to determine conclusively whether or not a ball has crossed the goal line without harming the flow of the game by pausing to study video replays.

Sidebar: Virtual imaging gives viewers the bigger picture

As the recent collapse of ITV Digital has shown, football coverage has become so important for attracting audiences that some television companies are willing to risk their financial future on securing the rights to show games.

To ensure maximum programming content from this investment, the channels then broadcast exhaustive expert discussion on each game, offering their viewers increasingly detailed information on the movement of each player and their contribution to the game.

Developments in GPS and image processing are being made to provide viewers with this extensive information, while the technologies are also being used to improve the coaching of players, and could ultimately lead to a new generation of high-tech training centres.

Technology can add another dimension to the game’s coverage, too, presenting viewers with information on the players’ speed, their physiological condition, their position, and how they interact, says Peter Aves of Qinetiq’s sports and leisure team. The company has developed ball and player tracking systems based on GPS, sensors and image-processing technology, as a spin-off from its work into systems for tracking military vehicles. The system uses three cameras to take pictures from different angles, then combines the images to produce a graphic display plotting the movements of every player on the pitch.

This information can be used to provide two-dimensional co-ordinates of all the players moving around areas such as the goalmouth, or added to broadcast footage for commentators to replay with name tags, tracks and graphics against all the players, says Aves. ‘We are giving the producer something extra with which to enhance the broadcast.’

But as well as providing extra content for broadcasters, the technology can also be taken a step further and used as a training aid for football clubs, says Qinetiq’s Tim Roberts. Tracking players on the pitch, potentially in real time and certainly post-match, can help to enhance players’ performance and develop tactics, he says. The company is in discussions with organisations looking to supply training centres with technologies like ball tracking to help players improve their penalty kicks through virtual replays showing the speed, direction and curve of the shot.

But it is not just balls the technology can follow. Qinetiq is working on an eye-tracking system, mounted on a pair of glasses. The system, which the company is also developing to collect information on children’s eye movements as an early indicator of dyslexia, consists of two tiny video cameras, one taking pictures of the scene ahead, and one reflecting an image back on to the eye and recording it to detect its direction. This can then be overlaid on to the video of the ball’s movement to show how well footballers are ‘following’ it.

The system could also be used to train referees and officials, to ensure they are keeping their eye on action on the football pitch effectively – something fans have been crying out for for years.