A harmonious marriage

Zinedine Zidane redefining the future of football with the Smart Ball at the adidas lab in London. The system measures essential physiological data of a team in real time, and sends it straight to a coach’s tablet on the sideline, allowing him to be one step ahead of the game.-GETTY IMAGES

The sophistication of team organisation and preparation has ensured that footballers are fitter, stronger and technically sharper. This development bears testimony to the advances made by technology in football. With technological introductions, the sport is placed on a surer footing. By Priyansh.

Like most other sporting disciplines, football is in awe of nostalgia. It’s not unusual to hear experts and past footballers lament the lost era that provided free-flowing football. This plaintive cry hasn’t lost its shrillness over decades. We’re often told that football is now worse than before — on and off the pitch.

To be fair, there’s a grain of truth in those opinions. But nothing more! On the pitch, football demands a level of technical excellence now that was hardly seen before. The sophistication of team organisation and preparation has ensured that footballers are fitter, stronger and technically sharper.

This development bears testimony to the advances made by technology in football. With technological introductions, the sport is placed on a surer footing.

Among the recent implementations, the most profound impact is likely to be seen in the development of performance analytics. With teams employing sports scientists like never before, the level of individual-based information is staggering. This has greatly reduced the incidence of injuries and allowed players to play at their highest level for longer periods.

Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph is a case in point. The German Football Federation (DFB) has been working for over a decade with EXOS, an American organisation that enhances performance analytics. The latter’s intensive and detailed preparation measures were listed among the major reasons behind the German national team’s success. Such has been EXOS’ achievement that one of its fitness coaches, Shad Forsythe, was appointed by Arsenal last season. It was remarkable to note how the incidence of injuries reduced in the second half of the season at the north London club.

Technology’s benefits have extended to the preparation of the collective as well. As a group, players have learnt to implement better strategies and this helps bridge the competitive gap. While money continues to gather strength as a divisive factor, the use of software like Prozone helps teams to gauge their threats and opportunities better than before.

It obviously helps that a modern footballer has the access to the best equipment at the sport’s top level. With the developments in shoe and pitches, a player has the best possible environment to show his wares.

While this has had a direct and positive impact on football, it has also ensured that a certain type of footballer has gone missing from the sport. The player who slips under the radar of the clubs’ scouting system is less likely to find his way back into professional football. While the scouting net has widened, there’s greater onus on the player to match the stringent technical and physical requirements at a younger age. The streamlining of recruitment procedures has room for only a particular type.

A goal control watch reads "goal" as a football rolls fully behind the goal-line during a demonstration in the western German city of Aachen in 2014. FIFA introduced the use of Goal-Line Technology during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.-REUTERS

Yet, despite football’s embrace of technology, the most vexed question in recent years has surrounded the use of Goal-Line Technology. The issue was finally resolved when FIFA implemented it at last year’s World Cup. While it’s viewed as a success by most now, the positive sentiment didn’t exist before.

The popular narrative dictates that football should remain a free-flowing spectacle. The dangers posed by video replays to this fluency, though, have been over-emphasised. But they retained enough potency to put the introduction of such technology off by a few years.

However in its current format, Goal-Line Technology has only enhanced football. It takes little time to ascertain whether the ball has crossed the line and the incidence of disputes has come down markedly as well. However, it still remains to be seen whether football will implement video replays to resolve all decisions.

While it would certainly lend transparency to the sport, it may give rise to disputes of a different nature. There’s a fear among authorities that it may lead to fighting amongst spectators in the stands. However, that’s likely to be a rare occurrence.

Like other popular sports, football needs to embrace technology in full. While it’s important to not leave the sport open to the whims of technology, the path towards greater technological involvement is an unavoidable one. Technology has made football a fairer and better organised sport.

The next step for football is to use it to make the fan-experience better.

While players and coaches have greatly benefitted from the technological advances, it’s about time the sport made itself more accessible and comfortable for the person who pays money to watch it every week. Even if football’s revenue sources multiply, the sentimental and economic benefits of treating fans with respect will remain strong as ever.

In some ways, the advent of platforms like Twitter has already bridged the gap between the fan and the professional footballer. Yet, it’s an imagined reduction. For real change to arrive, fans need to have a say in the running of the clubs and football administration. Technology can ensure their voices are heard.