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Science at play

Football was once a rough and tumble activity that pitted muscular men in a rambunctious effort to kick a heavy leather ball into the opponent’s goalpost, come hell or high water. Finesse crept into the low-brow game with the advent of Latin American dribblers, their craft aided by better maintained grass fields. Ball makers gave up water-absorbing leather and subjected new products to aerodynamic tests. From roughly-cleated football boots and heavy gingham strips, players’ kits have changed to embrace new technologies. What will the 2014 FIFA World Cup showcase?

Perhaps the biggest exhibit this year will be the goal-line technology that will determine whether or not the ball has fully entered the net to be counted as a goal. As English fans have been arguing, had specialised devices to track the ball’s passage across the goal line been in place in 2010, their country could well have beaten Germany in the group match. No such heartburn this year, with FIFA adopting a system developed by a German company called GoalControl. It uses 14 cameras to capture in 3D the position of the ball in relation to the goal line. If the ball crosses the goal line, a vibration and optical signal reaches a watch worn by the referee in less than a second to indicate a valid goal.

Technology enters the field in another form too. The Italian football squad will wear special shirts that can deliver massages to players during the game. According to the Italian news website Il Sole 24 Ore, the shirts contain a special tape that will provide “micro massages” to the wearer, in the process allowing the body to recover from exertion quicker, thus maximising muscle power.

Talking of technology, you would have wondered about the statistical information you get on individual performances during a match. This player ran so many kilometres during the match, the television caption shows. And you imagine someone on the sideline counting the number of steps taken by the player and multiplying it by the average span of that player’s feet to arrive at the distance. Nope, at the World Cup the use of GPS will allow a precise analysis of the distance covered by footballers during a match. The GPS device transmits the information to a computer on the sideline in real time. Two market leaders who supply such technology are GPSports and Catapult Sports.

GPS trackers have been enhanced with the addition of motion-sensing technologies to allow the coaching staff to monitor the players for not only distance run, but also their fitness in terms of speed, acceleration, heartbeats, air intake and impacts. The devices, like GPSports’ SPI Pro X Real Time, are worn on the body and the data accessed through wi-fi by off-ground monitors.

The players being tracked will be chasing the ball, of course. The official ball for the 2014 World Cup is called the Brazuca, and made by Adidas in Pakistan. It took over two years to perfect. Those who have used the ball during the warm-up matches have returned no controversial inputs, as happened with the 2010 Jabulani, also made by Adidas. Unlike the Jabulani, whose main fault was its unpredictable ways in flight, there are no wayward curves for the Brazuca after being kicked. Apparently, Adidas has included deeper cuts in the seam of the ball to create more drag to ensure accuracy.

Nike's new Magista football shoes

Nike’s new Magista football shoes

The boots that kick the Brazuca too are catching the eye this season. Perhaps none has been as discussed as Nike’s Magista football shoes. The Magista showcases a new fly-knit technology that allows them to become ultralight. The knitted exterior also enhances accuracy because of the grip this produces. The Adidas boots on show, mainly the Battlepack series, too weigh in grams and have studs designed to maximise speed and abrupt changes in body movement. Others aid pushing off and sprinting. With boots like these, the game should be a far cry from the days when heavy leather boots became heavier in wet weather and led to plodding football.

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