Tech takes the field at   World Cup soccer
Jun 27, 2019

Tech takes the field at World Cup soccer

Apps, sophisticated simulators, even video games help players train for soccer matches.

It takes very little to get a soccer game started. Two or more people kicking at something, make a goal out of some chairs or maybe even just a gap between trees and it’s on. Soccer can be very low tech. But clubs looking for an edge over the competition keep turning to high tech to analyze game play and help with training. Tech advances are noticeable for those who are glued to the TV this World Cup tournament as referees frequently use instant replay to make calls.

Marketplace’s Jed Kim spoke with Steve Haake, a professor of sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, about the evolving soccer technology. Haake said there are apps and other performance-enhancing tools, but the Footbonaut is the most expensive example. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Steve Haake: It’s a squared box, each side is about 40 feet long. The player stands in the middle. It’s all enclosed inside of a building, and then a sound goes off, which alerts the footballer’s attention to a frame, kind of a picture frame-size, out of which a ball flies at him or her. The footballer then has to trap the ball, and then there’s another alert, and a different frame lights up. The football player has to kick the ball through that frame. And this keeps continuing. These balls are flying at the footballer, who then has to trap the ball and then hit it to the frame that lights up. It’s something that would be great in an arcade.

Jed Kim: What about on the other end of things — what are some of the cheaper ways?

Haake: One of the things I’m most proud of is that we created an app called Snapshot. It’s just an app on your phone, and you point the camera on your phone at someone kicking a football, record them kicking the football, then just click on the screen where the football starts and it tells you the speed spin, the angle of the football. It was just a really nice, simple way of showing that for not a lot of money you can create something that’s really quite simple in terms of measuring how fast a ball goes in the performance of a player.

Kim: If you’re a club that has a lot of big fan base, a lot of revenue coming in, does that give you an advantage?

Haake: Yes it does, but only to a certain level. You can throw money at a problem, and you can end up with the best sensors, the wearables and high-tech gear. And you put all that information in, and you can have anything from number of accelerations, how far someone has run, what their heart rate was, how many goals they’ve scored. But then you need someone to distill that information into something useful. And it’s those people on the ground that are doing that analysis — this still isn’t any artificial intelligence that can do that job.

Related links: more insight from Jed Kim

Wondering about that $3 million contraption Steve Haake mentioned? The Footbonaut? The German soccer league Bundesliga said it worked like a batting cage: Several pitching machines fire soccer balls at you. Top speed: 62 miles per hour.

There’s also a video of someone who made a version of the Footbonaut in their garage. With the help of some lights, a patient parent and $3 million saved.

Deadspin threw shade at video assistant referee (instant replay). The article mentioned the way that technology is being mandated for making calls, saying that’s the real problem. Also, it was sprung on human referees and players with relatively little notice. You must give time for everyone to get used to new tools.

Video games can help athletes get better at sports. Sports Illustrated explained how some video games can improve players’ abilities to keep track of opponents, anticipate plays, switch from offense to defense. Nothing about how to kick a ball better, though.

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