2014 World Cup: tech transforms the beautiful game

  • GoalControl GmbH
  • GoalControl GmbH
  • Nike Magista boot Image credit: Nike
  • Adidas Samba Primeknit boot Image credit: Adidas
  • Adidas Brazuca Image credit: The Newsmarket
  • The Adidas Brazuca ball has six built-in HD cameras
Date:13 June 2014 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Footballing skills will not be the only thing on show at the 2014 World Cup. From boots to broadcast equipment, may the best tech win

It’s a sultry Thursday evening in June. The Arena de Sao Paolo is buzzing. Suddenly, a shrill whistle-blast slices through the hubbub and it’s time for Samba Soccer as the 20th FIFA World Cup kicks off with hosts Brazil going up against Croatia.

It hardly seems like four years have passed since South Africa basked in the world spotlight with World Cup 2010. But time has marched on, and so has progress. Players, teams and tactics will be different. So, too, will the myriad technologies that, increasingly, are becoming integral to sport. Four years ago, for example, 3D broadcasts were trialled at the 19th World Cup.

This time around, what will be different? And what difference will it make, anyway? We deconstruct some of the tech you’ll see during this festival of Samba Soccer.

Laduuuuuuuuuuma!
England’s controversial (and decisive) third goal of the 1966 final against Germany was the subject of endless replays, photographs from different angles, not to mention lasting bitterness among supporters of the vanquished. A Geoff Hurst rocket ricocheted off the underside of the crossbar, seemingly crossing the goal-line before bouncing back out on the field of play. Did the ball cross the line? The linesman said yes and England went 3-2 up. There was neither conclusive evidence nor helpful technology to the contrary.

Fast forward to World Cup 2010 and the boot, if you’ll pardon the pun, is on the other foot. England are 2-1 down against Germany. Frank Lampard fires in a shot, which – much like Hurst’s nearly 50 years early – bounces down at an angle and back out. TV footage suggests that it is a goal. The officials say no. England crash out the finals.

And it’s not just England and Germany, either. This kind of scenario has been played out countless times. Until now, FIFA has stubbornly resisted enlisting the aid of technology. In the modern professional game, with huge amounts of money and careers at stake, their stance against goal line technology was becoming harder and harder to justify. Would it really usurp onfield officials’ powers and waste time, as they seemed to fear?

Things have changed. In 2014, goal-line technology (GLT) will feature at the FIFA World Cup for the first time. The official view: GLT will act as support for match officials. German company GoalControl GmbH is the official GLT provider for the tournament. It will install its system in each of the 12 stadiums, with testing being carried out at Rio de Janeiro’s landmark Maracanã Stadium by the FIFA accredited test institute Labosport Ltd.

How it works. The system has one simple decision to make: did the whole of the ball – no more, no less – cross the goal-line? If yes, then it’s a goal.

GoalControl uses a total of 14 high-speed cameras – seven per goalmouth – located high up around the pitch. The ball’s position is continuously and automatically captured in 3D, and computers calculate if it has crossed the line, if the system deems that a goal has been scored, that information is flashed, within one second, to watches worn by each of the match officials. GoalControl has already been battle-tested: it was used successfully at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013 and the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco last December.

The International Football Association Board, guardians of the game’s laws, has laid down strict requirements for GLT systems. Importantly, they should not interfere with the game. Because of this directive, only the match officials are to receive the “goal” signal, which has to be transmitted within one second to ensure immediate response from the referee.

Besides being able to provide more vision than a human’s, GLT also has to be able to stand up to the rigours of weather and match situations.

As part of their certification process, GLT systems have to be subject to a full “maintenance plan” and require checking by the match officials before every official match.

What the eye can’t see. The human eye can see only about 16 images per second, says one of the GLT system developers. Put another way, to perceive an image of a ball it needs to be travelling at under 12 km/h or stationary – behind the goal-line in this case – for at least 60 milliseconds. Given that the most brutal efforts from today’s free-kick specialists have been clocked at over 120 km/h, it’s clear that the human eye is at a huge disadvantage in rebound situations.

The fix: high-speed high-def cameras.

Point of view. Vantage point is another problem area, with parallax and perspective errors making it dif­ficult to be sure of a ball’s position.

The fix: multiple cameras.

The magnetic alternative
Although the GLT systems provided by various companies need to ful­l specific technical criteria, they are free to use whichever solutions and technologies they want. An alternative to Goal-Control’s combination of cameras and computers is magnetic fields, used by several competitors.

In the magnetic system, cables around the goals (including underground) set up a field that interacts with receptors in the ball so that the ball’s exact position can be computed.

The Fraunhofer Institute’s GoalRef system involves 10 antennae that create a weak magnetic field behind the posts. Just like the RFID security tags we’re familiar with in department stores, inductive elements in the ball set off the goal “alarm”.

“GoalRef is a bit like an invisible curtain which hangs behind the crossbar and the goal-line. As soon as the ball fully passes through this curtain, it is recognised as a goal,” says Ingmar Bretz, project head of GoalRef. The system then automatically sends this information in real time via encoded radio signals to the referees whose special wrist watches display the result visually and by means of vibration. Laboratory and fi­eld tests, training and live professional matches, and “several thousand goals” formed part of the evaluation system. Fortunately, this won’t lock the footballing authorities into a specific brand of “iball”. In a testing, the developers used a ball sourced from long time Danish partners Select. Future designs will be able to use balls from other manufacturers, they say.

If the shoe fits…
Until well into the middle of last century, football boots looked like something not far removed from the product of a Victorian cobbler’s last. It wasn’t until the style wars (chief protagonists: Adidas and Puma) of the 1960s, the advent of screw-in studs and later – towards the close of the century – high-performance technologies, that players began to look at their boots as more than just a covering for their feet. Modern boots are not only optimised for comfort and ruggedness, but also help players to run more efficiently and kick better.

In today’s fashion-conscious world, it’s a given that boots have to help players look better, too. It’s surprising, then – or perhaps not – that two of the big players in world football bootdom have launched designs that look like nothing else we’ve seen before… except each other.

And to listen to the players who have tried them, these boot-scum-hose, made of special high-tech yarns, will … er… knock your socks off.

Adidas Samba Primeknit
The publicity material suggests that every footballer dreams of a boot that combines the comfort and responsiveness of playing barefoot with the protection of a traditional design. Available only in a limited edition, it’s described as the first football boot to have an upper knitted from heel to toe and is said to fit like a second skin. The Samba provides “new levels of flexibility and comfort”.

The yarns used in its construction provide a product as stable and strong as conventional boots, Adidas says. And your feet won’t get wet, either: a “high-precision coating… guarantees water resistance even in the most challenging conditions”.

Though it may look like a sock with attitude, the Samba Primeknit has several tricks up its bootlaces. Thanks to advanced production techniques, the one-layer upper can be constructed with zones designed for specific performance requirements.

And sustainability lies at its heart. According to Adidas, thanks to the waste minimising design of the one-piece upper, it is Adidas’ most sustainable football boot.

Nike Magista
Barcelona FC and Spanish World Cup champion playmaker Andres Iniesta was the star turn at the Nike launch in his club’s home city. “The fit of this boot is so unique that I don’t think about it when I’m wearing it,” said Iniesta. “It allows me to move the way I need to instinctively and with more confidence.”

Significantly, whereas traditional boots insulate the player’s foot from the ball – modern high-tech designs have specialised layers and zones for particular aspects of ball control such as kicking, passing and dribbling – the hybrid boot-sock design actually minimises those layers, giving the player improved feel. Removing the insole board has added to the minimalist closer-to-the-action feel.

The Magista, which took four years to develop, uses Nike’s Flyknit technology in a football boot for the first time, having been used previously in running and basketball shoes. The boot’s new mid-cut Dynamic Fit Collar creates a more locked-down fit that allows the foot, ankle and lower leg to work together as a single unit. The result, says Nike: a glove-like, more natural feel, increased awareness of the body’s movements, and more confident interaction with the ground and the ball. A 3D-knit textured upper gives the Magista wearer a more aggressive texture to create friction on the ball for accurate dribbling and striking.

A film less than 0,1 mm thick is placed over the Flyknit, and melts on to the knit to protect against water and cold. The tech continues to the sole, with Magista specific 360° rotational traction through conical studs and a Pebax-and-nylon plate to improve traction and minimise unnecessary mechanical flex.

Ball’s-eye view
Another World Cup, another tournament-specific ball. For 2014, the of­ficial ball is the Adidas Brazuca. But its use has not been restricted to the month from 12 June to 13 July 2014. In the run-up to the championship, the ball went on a world tour in a weekly series of online documentary-styl­e films – seen from a ball’s eye view. As if that wasn’t enough, the ball even had its own twitter account, @brazuca.

It all started with the interactive movie I Am Brazuca late last year. This allowed viewers to pause the movie, dive into it and take a 360-degree exploration of the scene. That was followed by the video series Brazuca around the world, shot using unique brazucam technology. That tech is based on a customised match ball with six built-in HD cameras, helping it capture a full 360-degree view. Given that a football’s life is a hard one – you try accelerating from zero to 100-plus km/h in a fraction of a second, then stop just as quickly – the tech doesn’t end at the miniature cameras. The set-up includes custom-made image stabilisation software.

Footballing stars featured in the video series include Xavi Hernandez, Dani Alves, Cristian Tello, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and David Villa.

Picture perfect
The big news at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, broadcast-wise, was 3D. This time around, it’s 4K. However, unlike the 25-game 3D project, this year’s 4K is more of a testing of the waters for future ultra-high-definition content.

FIFA partner Sony is undertaking test coverage to fine-tune its 4K technologies and to provide the basis for promotional footage after the event. For Sony, the World Cup is just the start as it prepares to show off the tech involved in its new 4K Ultra HD television and monitor. Just three games will be recorded in 4K Ultra HD:

● One match from the round of 16 (to be held on 28 June)
● One quarter-final (on 4 July)
● The final (on 13 July at the Estadio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.

We’ll see these as part of the official FIFA commemorative video and in edited form as trailers at TV retailers.

So what will viewers at home see? In realtime: no difference. After the fact, when playing the official video, with suitable replay equipment we can expect to see significantly greater realism, with reproduction that surpasses even today’s sharp, vivid images on 1080p high-def.

Given that 4K material is still not readily available, that has to be a good thing. Fans in Brazil will be able to sample 4K at special commercial display booths located within some of the 2014 FIFA World Cup stadiums and at the FIFA-hosted HD public viewing FIFA Fan Fest events. At these events, official 4K Film promotional trailers produced in 4K/60P with match action will be shown.

According to Sony, the official 4K Film is due to be distributed online by FIFA via 4K content distribution services after the World Cup. The company will be providing extensive technical support to FIFA, including the development of a 4K live production system.

The equipment Sony will be using includes its:
● PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K digital cinema camera
● PVMX300 30-inch 4K Trimaster LCD professional monitor
● PWS4400 multi-port AV storage unit
● MVS7000X multi-format production switcher processor.

Don’t miss a thing
Capturing all the thrills of every game isn’t easy in households where timeshifted viewing is a reality and soccer has to coexist with soapies, series and reality TV. Fanatics who don’t want to miss a single moment of the action – and want to capture it all in HD, too – have the bene­t of more storage space on MultiChoice’s Explora decoder.

The new decoder quadruples the disc drive space of its predecessor, with a substantial 2 TB now available. That’s good for up to 220 hours of HD recording. The Linux-based device also boosts the amount of space available for Box Office and Catch Up content, with a tuner dedicated to recordings, and uses a more powerful processor coupled with bigger RAM. All of this does come at a price, though: the new model costs R2 499.

Sources: FIFA, Sony, Nike, Adidas, The Newsmarket, Fraunhofer Institute

Video: Adventures of Brazuca, the official ball for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil