Technology in Football

World Cup football began in 1930 and the contrast between the game of yesteryear and today’s tournament in Russia, is like comparing an ordinary bicycle to a Ferrari! Developments in the game, particularly through technology innovations, mean the sport and its players function on an entirely different level these days. VAR (Video Assistant Referees) is the “high tech” acronym in Russia2018, but long before VAR was implemented, football had already irrevocably changed from the game played at the inaugural World Cup.

A visit to the National Football Museum in Manchester in early June revealed some delightful treasures; World Cup Willie (1966 mascot), a 1930 World Cup final ball (probably a replica), first England World Cup shirt (1950), England World Cup Winners shirt (1966). Looking around I continually marvelled at how much had changed, from the fundamentals of clothing, to the enhancement of equipment and stadia, and advances in medical knowledge. All aspects within football had been transformed and it was all due to scientific and technology innovations. So I thought I’d mix my love of science, football and history and give an overview of the beautiful game technology.

Football Kit Changes

Shirts: The 1950 England shirt looked no different from those worn by the early players of football; it was effectively a KNITTED WOOLLEN JUMPER. Add to that a pair of long baggy shorts (like cut off work trousers), knitted socks and hard looking leather hob nailed boots, that would not have been out of place worn down a coal pit. This appeared to be the standard kit in the early decades of World Cup football. By 1966 England triumphed wearing clothing seemingly made specifically with sporting activity in mind, tailored cotton shorts, cotton socks and a heavy cotton sweatshirt styled top, with boots that seemed structured for better foot control of the ball.   Today, materials innovations allow shirts to be constructed from polyester/polymer technology. They are light weight and strong, usually have some kind of wicking and climacontrol properties, and may offer areas of compression to protect weak spots from injury. Materials scientist Dr Suze Kundu has written a superb in-depth article regarding the science behind football kit technology, and you can find it here.

Socks can also offer compression areas woven into the fabric to protect the calf for example. The sock can be made thicker in places where the foot causes more pressure, offering a bit of shock absorbance and cushioning, whilst pressure sores can be alleviated by a seamless construction. Climacontrol properties help maintain optimal conditions for foot temperature and dryness. The materials used are most likely to be a mix of polyester, nylon and elastane offering a snug yet flexible fit.

Shin pads displayed at the football museum from the early years of the game were single length rigid leather pads, with minimal curved edges that looked uncomfortable to wear.  Nowadays anatomical moulded shin pads are constructed from super light weight materials that have high tensile strength and cushioning to absorb impact. Dual density foam technology can provide enhanced protection alongside breathability offering maximum comfort.

Ankle Guards can be included within a sock fitting used to secure shin pads or bought separately. I’ve seen guards advertised with a 70% polyester/30% rubber mix construction, offering light weight flexible materials with a heavier emphasis on impact absorption.

Goal Keeper Gloves: Rather like the old style shin pads the antique keeper gloves were heavy styled leather ones that looked very inflexible and rigid, and made me think of a baseball/cricket catcher mitt. Today’s goalie can enjoy gloves that offer better manoeuvrability, high stress area padding for stopping and good grip, with climacontrol technology that keep hands warm and dry.

Boots: Boots made from mixed polymers provide a light, strong breathable mesh construction, which can be malleable to sport specific movement. Boot/ball contact areas can be made stronger to withstand high impact pressures, whilst the boot has enough “give” to allow players feet to move and react in a more natural way.

Ball: The early football game was played using a leather ball containing an inflated pig’s bladder. Viewing the inaugural 1930 World Cup football you can see the distinct leather lace stitching as well. Such a construction meant the ball inevitably absorbed water in wet weather, becoming two to three times heavier during a game. It would be like kicking or heading a dead weight, and issues have arisen concerning former players, especially prolific headers of the ball (Jeff Astle) suffering acute brain damage. Old style stitching on the ball resulted in deep gash injuries to the head and face too. The Russia2018 ball has an 83% TPU 17% polyester construction with a latex bladder and is thermally bonded to be seamless. This polyester/polymer ball is light weight, repels water and has undoubtedly been tested in wind tunnels to study its aerodynamic properties. After all the ball design (panels), polymer used, and the optimal pressure within the ball could all affect its performance.

Goal Technology/VAR

Goal Line Technology (GLT): I’ve seen two variations for this technology written about in recent years, GoalRef which uses electromagnetic induction principles and Hawkeye, which relies on high speed cameras and computer software to determine the ball position. Alas it seems FIFA prefer Hawkeye the most expensive option, thus excluding the majority of football practitioners’ from being able to use it. GLT was used for the first time in the World Cup four years ago and was called the GoalControl-4D system. With multiple cameras focused on the goalmouth, the ball can be isolated from other images and its position calculated by triangulation, and with speed considered as well, a 4D interpretation of the ball position is made. If the ball is deemed to have fully crossed the goal line, the referee receives an encrypted radio signal to his watch within one second, getting confirmation both visually and through vibration technology.

VAR: Referees in Russia have four extra assistants watching multi-angle views of potential incidents in a game. Birdseye views can be got through a plethora of cameras, offering multi-zoom, high definition images. Instant replays of any action can be shown repeatedly to the VAR assistants, the referee, and on TV for the stay at home fans to become referees too.  Fans in the stadium can enjoy seeing goals replayed on huge video screens, whilst World Cup referees have high tech watches and ear pieces to keep them updated with information, and VAR screens pitch side. However, VAR technology although technically accurate still requires human interpretation of it, so decisions will remain controversial.

Footage of the inaugural World Cup of 1930 shows grainy black & white wide angle coverage. Back then there was probably minimal use of TV cameras (perhaps on every corner area). You have to remember though that film technology was only a few decades old, and talking movies only began in 1927! The 1930s referee probably had only a standard pocket or wrist watch to rely on, his two linesmen and the crowd reactions to go by.

The Stadium

The Pitch: Some grounds today have an entirely synthetically made Astroturf surface, which is resistant to the vagaries of the weather, and perhaps offers a less expensive pitch to maintain. Grass pitches remain the normal playing surface in the UK, and the old style pitchfork/brush/sand combination is still used to maintain pitch integrity through torrential rain and overuse in play. Fast growing grass seed may be used to make the pitch surface more robust. And lights similar to greenhouse ones are used to help grass grow evenly in heavy shaded stadiums. An Old Trafford tour revealed news of a high tech drainage system under the pitch, where water was collected and then recycled to maintain its condition!

Infrastructure: Thankfully modern safety concerns have made wooden stands and open terraces largely a thing of the past. Retractable roofs can help keep out the worst/most excessive elements of rain and heat, and roof design in general can partly influence playing conditions. The Qatar World Cup in 2022 offers a fascinating prospect where air conditioning, solar radiation reduction and stadia recycling strategies, have all been implemented in the building design process. It is hoped that a constant temperature can be maintained for both playing and viewing conditions, and that the modular structure of stadiums will make them easier to dismantle, transport and reassemble again, for use in third world countries. If those ideals could be met that would be seriously impressive.

Medical Innovations

Injuries: Surgical advances mean that career ending injuries from twenty years ago can now be treated, and a player may well be able to take up the game again after complex surgery and a long rehabilitation. Considering substitutions were not always allowed, players of yesteryear had to continue playing whilst hurt (or leave the team undermanned), which could only have exacerbated the degree of injury sustained. Medical treatment was perfunctory and rather basic, so even a bad leg break could be the end of football playing.

Physiology/Psychology: Professional players today are full time athletes with the help of club doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports psychologists to help deal with injury concerns and the pressures of celebrity. But until at least the late 60s/ early 70s players could have a day job, whilst trying to maintain a fledgling football career (Joe Jordan, Sir Alex Ferguson, and David Moyes). And before clubs became professional most men put in a full week’s work, many down pits, in steelworks or factories. So a player back in the 1930s was more reliant on their own natural athleticism, and body conditioning came from the day job and exercise around the playing field. Little wonder many enjoyed a smoke and a pint down the pub as a means of relaxing and coping with what life threw at them. My heart goes out to World Cup Northern Ireland keeper Harry Gregg who played in 58, and England midfielder Bobby Charlton (squad member) who both went to the biggest football tournament in the world, only months after surviving the Munich disaster. I don’t suppose sports psychologists were on hand to help them deal with the trauma they endured. They just got on with their game, now THAT is mental strength.

Bicycle to Ferrari

So the solid reliable bicycle propelled by pedal power can be likened to the World Cup game of 1930. Teams endured a somewhat laboured travel schedule over several weeks to reach Uruguay. They wore heavy everyday styled clothing and cumbersome boots, to kick leather balls around pitches of dubious quality. Players usually had day jobs, football was part-time for them, and training fitted around shift patterns. Referees were virtually self reliant, empowered only by their wits, the two linesmen, and rudimentary equipment. Huge throngs watched games in antiquated stadiums with few if any facilities and publicity of events occurred through newspapers, telegrams and cinema news reels, created using the infant TV/film technology. Watching those reels the game may seem slow with less finesse but is it any wonder? The 2018 World Cup by comparison is a well oiled Ferrari, where teams zipped around the globe taking only a matter of days to arrive in Russia. Participating nations are kitted out in light weight, highly durable sport specific clothing and footwear incorporating the latest technology innovations. Pitch surfaces are primed to perfection, balls no longer get heavier during inclement weather, and huge crowds of football fans enjoy the game in multi facility stadia. Players are full time professionals, their training developed to incorporate the latest medical advances, to ensure their bodies and minds are honed to a level of fitness akin to a finely tuned sporty little engine. Referees are supported by their linesmen AND off pitch assistants, and receive information assimilated by computer technology. And news of events is literally instantaneous thanks to 24 hour running news programs, social media, the internet and high definition TV broadcasts, that show the fast paced, highly commercial and somewhat cynical game of today in all it’s fascinating glory.

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