It has been almost 25 years since some companies managed to open the locker room doors to put chips in the players. They were vests with a built-in GPS. Prototypes that barely allowed to measure the distance traveled, the maximum speed reached, the moments of acceleration. It was a revolution. In just a decade, fans around the world began to wonder what was that bra worn by players with technological markings on their chests. Those strategically visible startup logos were venturing one of the challenges that technology in soccer continues to face today: democratizing its use. Marketing of a lifetime. Buy six vests and if the players show my brand, I’ll give you the rest of the team’s vests. Vests entered soccer on a massive scale more than a decade ago.
From elite to amateur soccer GPS vests were added to bibs and cones as a must-have item of equipment for clubs around the world. In 2015 the International Football Association Board (IFAB) authorized their use in competitions. The Women’s World Cup in Canada was the test bed. Ten years have passed and the trend of measuring and analyzing data in soccer has new challenges ahead: “Democratization of its use, standardization of data and personalization.” Barça Innovation Hub director Albert Mundet believes that these three verticals are the foundation of the technology to come.
“There is currently a technological tension between two types of measurement technologies with advantages and disadvantages, optical (through video) and that based on wearables. The first allows you to have tactical data in a non-invasive way through the tagging of match events or the tracking of the position of the players of both teams and the ball on the field. And the second is more useful for physical trainers to accurately measure the conditional stress that each player has during the match”, summarizes Mundet. The optical tracking technology is based on the installation of cameras in the stadium and the detection of the position through the contrast of the colors of the pixels. It is still an expensive technology because it is not 100% automated. It is also difficult to apply in training sessions due to the variability of the fields and objects that are part of the training sessions.
In the case of LaLiga in Spain, clubs rely on Mediacoach, a La Liga solution to provide tactical information from the video source.
Event tracking is what is used by statistics companies, especially useful for scouting and not so much for the tactical analysis that coaches are looking for. “The problem with positional tracking for scouting is that it does not have the ubiquity that eventing does. That is, there is no positional tracking system in the second division of Brazil, to give an example, although they have advanced the use of self-production cameras for these cases,” adds Mundet.
The other types of devices in vests allow sensors to obtain a lot of data, especially useful for physical trainers to measure the mechanical stress to which players are subjected during matches. The problem with the devices is that they can be uncomfortable for players and also each club uses a different wearable. “So the potential trend is for the league to standardize the device for all clubs. Are there examples already? Yes, the entire Mexican league uses the Real Track Systems wearable, a Spanish company, which is used in the first, second and women’s leagues. The good thing about this system is that you can compare the results of the match with the training”.
The unstoppable advance in the development of this technology has made it possible to offer more economical solutions to semi-professional and amateur soccer. This is the case of OLIVER, a company in which Bihub has a stake, which for a cost of around 3,000 euros per year offers many clubs the monitoring of their players all year round. “Since we started creating our tracker, we had one goal in mind: to create an accessible technology not only in terms of price but also in terms of ease of use so that all soccer players around the world can measure their game,” explains Ezequiel Torti, CTO and co-founder at OLIVER. Clubs such as Barça use professional weareable systems costing between 30,000 and 50,000 euros annually per team. Training for tactical analysis of data has also been democratized in the academic offer for future coaches such as the Bihub tactical analysis courses.
This example of Mexico’s league brings us to the second challenge, which is the standardization of data that will make data-driven artificial intelligence more useful. In other words, volume for big data. Prompted by the request of clubs to facilitate technological development in a single system FIFA together with FC Barcelona has developed a unique system to measure footballers’ data. “the increasing availability of information sources and the need for centralization of data makes it very difficult for clubs to keep pace with the growing pace of this industry, with respect to the needs for continuous integration and maintainability of data. Also the ad hoc nature of the formats provided makes it more difficult to integrate information from different sources, making progress in this area slower,” explains FIFA (https://fifa-quality-prod-1.azurewebsites.net/media/171893/standard-transfer-format-documentation.pdf).
“Before this measure, if a club changed provider, it would lose the historical data,” explains Mundet, who warns of one of the major stumbling blocks to sharing data between clubs: competitiveness. “Let’s imagine that we know that a player is at risk of injury when he is forced to play to one side, because the opponent could load the game to this side to harm him. This is sensitive information,” he adds. The future translation of this unified system will be particularly useful for keeping track of players’ history when they change teams. Players will change clubs with their data incorporated so that clubs can incorporate this information in order to personalize training and injury prevention.
The player’s opinion is key in any technological advance in soccer and one of the challenges to be solved is to prevent systems from being too invasive. That’s why devices like OLIVER’s that place tracking in the sock instead of a vest are especially appealing. “The placement on the leg came about not only to be able to add a metric layer of interaction with the ball, but also as a less invasive and more comfortable solution for players,” adds Jose Gonzalez Ruzo, CEO and co-founder of OLIVER. The same occurs with the latest trend that the technology industry is looking at in soccer, the personalization of the player’s external data with internal data. How does an athlete’s physiology vary when he or she is in full effort? What happens inside the player’s body when he or she is injured, takes a penalty, shoots on goal or runs a counterattack? In a science fiction game, the industry’s wish would be to be able to see in real time all the biometic values of the soccer players during a match. This would require data collection devices in a player’s blood. Without going that far, wearables can already measure heart rate in a simple way.
“When the Antonio Puerta tragedy occurred 16 years ago, many companies moved forward to detect heart disease in players,” explains Mundet. And the industry is already testing ways to measure players’ physiology without invading their bodies. How? By measuring sweat. ONALABS sums it up: “We are the only company capable of continuously and non-invasively reading, measuring and monitoring key physiological parameters through sweat. ONALABS technology turns sweat into an intelligent biofluid and the skin into a data platform”. The data this project works with are: blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate, skin temperature and activity and possible falls.
Devices that allow such data to be obtained are already active in the health sector, not just in sports. “The possibilities in this field are very large. In the measurement of conditional stress data, what we call external load, a lot of progress has already been made. For example, we are promoting an R&D project that makes it possible to adapt training to the times of the season when these mechanical loads are going to stress the body the most. There is little in the way of physiological response. There are medical check-ups to minimize risks, but we can make a lot of progress in obtaining better information to treat each player in a much more personalized way through biometric data,” explains the Bihub director.
Paradoxically, it is in women’s soccer where more advanced steps are being taken than in men’s soccer to collect this type of data. As Dr. Eva Ferrer explains, the Bihub, through the women’s teams, is trying to explain how women’s bodies work during the menstrual cycle through physiological analysis during matches and training sessions (https://barcainnovationhub.fcbarcelona.com/es/blog/afecta-el-ciclo-menstrual-a-la-fuerza-y-potencia-de-las-deportistas-de-elite/). The challenge is to measure the hormonal change produced by the different stages of the menstrual cycle and its relationship with injuries or performance.