How technology has changed football

How technology has changed football

Sometimes you are so perfectly positioned that a pivotal moment slows down a fraction. Weaving through a sea of maroon, grey, red and black, Matt looked up 30 yards out, paused, and wrapped his right foot around the ball, sending it on a swerving arc towards the goal. From my view directly behind him, it seemed as though the white sphere would dip just wide of the old-school square wooden posts, but at the last moment it viciously swung onto the inside corner of the upright before bulging the net. The euphoric outpouring that follows such an occasion is one that millions of people all over the world are well acquainted with, but in the seconds that followed the wonder strike, my first thoughts were, “That was all about his Predators.”

At the turn of the millennium, every schoolboy footballer wanted the ubiquitous rubber-surfaced boot that David Beckham made famous. OK, so the goal above was only in the quarter-final of the Shrewsbury School under-15 House Cup between Severn Hill and Moser’s, but the added purchase on the ball was something that seemed revolutionary. Football in its organised form began as a method of promoting the thoroughly Victorian virtues of moral fibre and physical fitness, but little in the way of finesse. During the last 150 years, however, refinements through technology have been as inevitable as they have been influential.

The first recorded boots were “boots” in the truest sense of the word – rising to above the ankle, with steel toe caps and rudimentary fortified leather cleats hammered into the soles, they were little more than accessorised industrial work boots. Weighing in at half a kilo, and doubling in weight in the rain – equivalent to modern British Army combat boots – they were most definitely not designed for speed and mobility, but they were designed for the game of the day.

Complaints about the quality of pitches today seem petty when one considers the mud baths that characterised the winter months of 19th-century seasons. Footwear had to be able to withstand the often atrocious conditions underfoot, and also the hefty leather balls which swelled to eye-watering masses in the rain. Interestingly, though, the dry weight of balls back then was actually lighter than the average ball today – the specified standard weight before 1937 was 13-15oz, whereas for the last 80 years it has been 14-16oz.

Recently, Gareth Bale stepped out in the world’s lightest ever boot, the 135g Adidas Crazylight F50s, but the path from the kilogramme structures to these feather-light numbers has mirrored the game itself. The days of kick and rush rewarded physicality, with centre-forwards trained to win their aerial duels and stoic centre-halves celebrated as exemplars of fortitude who never strayed beyond the halfway line. But further afield, the game was developing in a different direction to that of the birthplace of the organised game.

Austria’s magical Wunderteam of the 1930s were spearheaded by a very unconventional number nine, Matthias Sindelar. He could not have differed more greatly from Bolton’s ‘Lion of Vienna’, Nat Lofthouse, who earned that moniker for his robust bravery in scoring England’s second in a 3-2 win in 1952, two decades after the five foot nine 63kg Austrian dazzled the coffee house classes of Central Europe.

Nicknamed ‘The Paper Man’ due to his slight build, Sindelar’s fleet-footed style characterised a changing approach to the game on the continent, and had it not been for the Anschluss in 1938 and his suspicious death prior to the outbreak of war the following year, he would surely have struck more than his 26 goals in 43 games for Austria.

A decade earlier, Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, the founders of Adidas, had begun producing a new style of lighter and more adaptable boots that sat below the ankle bone and featured screw in studs that could be changed to suit the conditions. In hindsight, this recognition of a greater need for mobility and speed was inevitable as players looked to gain every advantage they could in an era when the game was beginning to expand its boundaries.

It was all very well modernising the boots, but the balls were still absorbing a huge amount of extra weight with damp conditions. Jeff Astle died in 2002, and the coroner’s report attributed the persistent minor traumas of heading such a sodden object to his degenerative brain disease. It was still seen as a sign of toughness on these shores to head the ball despite its hefty mass – impressive figures such as John Charles and Geoff Hurst were revered for their imposing physical prowess. Astoundingly, the first fully synthetic ball wasn’t used in a World Cup until Mexico 86 with the iconic Adidas Azteca, by which time lightweight playmakers such as Diego Maradona, Enzo Scifo and Michael Laudrup help court on the footballing stage.

After the Second World War, Wolves were one of the leading clubs in the country. The English press proclaimed them to be ‘Champions of the World’ in 1954 after they came back from 2-0 down to beat the Honvéd side that contained many of the Magical Magyars who had humiliated England the year before at Wembley. But it wasn’t just the stellar opposition that lit up that night – it was the floodlights that created a new atmosphere, a mystique that could not be recreated on a cold autumn afternoon.

Gabriel Hanot of France’s L’Equipe magazine took umbrage with the perceived arrogance of the insular declaration of superiority and decided to form the European Champion Clubs’ Cup to once and for all find the true kings of the continent. The obvious necessity was to find match dates that did not clash with domestic fixtures, and therefore midweek floodlit football was required for this experiment to take shape. International club competitions had been run before, but never on a full pan-European scale.

Although Wolves’ series of exotic international friendlies against the likes of Spartak Moscow, Racing Club, Real Madrid and South Africa were groundbreaking, they were far from the first floodlit matches to be staged on these shores. The decidedly less glamorous setting of South Yorkshire and two representative sides from the Sheffield FA saw Brammall Lane become the first stadium to host a match under floodlights in 1878. An official attendance of 12,000 (rumoured to be closer to 20,000) marvelled at the two portable generators that supplied 8,000 candle-power to four wooden lighting towers 30ft high. To put that crowd in context, it wasn’t until 1887 against Scotland that England managed a larger attendance in a home international.

There had been artificial lighting for other sporting events previously, but by using gas not electricity. The rather eccentric six-day athletic races held in the 1880s, known as ‘The Wobbles’, were held in the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington using gas lighting, enabling George Littlewood to set an astonishing record of 623 miles, a mark that remained for over a century.

This was the age of invention, and curiosity was a powerful tool – the electric company that supplied the lights for the historic Bramall Lane clash wanted a well-publicised event to showcase its ability to supply lighting for large outdoor areas such as work yards and railways depots, while the Sheffield FA wanted to draw in large crowds to build interest in their game. In that sense, this event was an unqualified success, despite the pylons being placed too close to the pitch.

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Reliability issues and the FA’s reluctance to countenance change meant that it failed to catch on for almost a century, however. For a long time from their Soho Square offices, the sport’s governing body failed to appreciate the enormous benefits that would become essential to the running of the game, and even banned the use of floodlights in all matches, friendlies included, in 1930. Thirty years later, though, they had lifted the ban, and by 1967 all Football League clubs had floodlights installed.

The benefits of not needing to rely on daylight were obvious – Manchester United’s Busby Babes tore through Europe’s best under the lights of Maine Road until Old Trafford was fitted out, putting England’s finest young talent on display across the continent. Busby was not the only one who saw the huge potential of a prestigious continental tournament; in the 1970s and 1980s Anfield’s European nights became legendary, creating a unique aura.

Most technological advancements have been reached to improve football matches, but one controversial development was designed simply to ensure they took place at all. I attended primary school in Staffordshire, and in 1993 a brand new Astroturf pitch was inaugurated by none other than local Potters legend Sir Stanley Matthews.

As an eight-year-old, I was still unaware of his stature, but I was certainly excited at the prospect of being able to play on an even surface – only two grass pitches on the grounds adopted an incline of less than 20 degrees. Every Sunday afternoon was subsequently spent creating variations of the beautiful game, but every Sunday evening was spent cleaning and healing lacerations that would make a military nurse faint.

The concept of Astroturf was good, but the delivery was absolutely shocking. In fairness, when Americans James Faria and Robert Wright invented the surface in the 1960s, they weren’t thinking of football, but had other sport such as baseball in mind. The construction of these revolutionary pitches involved a concrete under layer, topped with a layer of sand, and razor sharp plastic blades of fake grass.

With the maddeningly crowded British festive period, cancelled matches played havoc with the calendar, forcing clubs such as QPR, Oldham, Preston and Luton to search for more reliable alternatives. The impact on joints cause by the rock solid foundations as well as the excessive bounce from the ball made the spectacle horrific for fans and dangerous for players, so it came as little surprise when Preston became the last club to tear up their artificial surface at Deepdale in 1994, months before David Beckham joined on loan.

When the western media lambasted CSKA Moscow for providing an artificial pitch for a Champions League tie against Manchester United in 2009, the use of the term ‘plastic’ was faintly ridiculous. To call Loftus Road’s mid-80s monstrosity thus is entirely accurate, but to tar the modern incarnations of 3G and 4G pitches, such as the one that the Luzhniki had installed at the time, with the same brush is to wildly misrepresent what has been a huge leap forward.

The more recent surfaces that have sprung up around the country at five-a-side centres and at virtually all academies are playable using normal studded boots, and replicate the feel of turf while retaining a level surface. Aside from having to prepare the surface roughly once every five matches, there is minimal upkeep required, and certainly a lot less than a natural grass pitch. Some stadia such as Old Trafford have for years suffered from poor ventilation and sunlight to the grass surface due to the ever-rising stands that surround it, but artificial turf circumvents this issue.

Purists, however, point to the tradition of playing on natural pitches where many fond memories have been forged. Even rain-soaked mud baths have their quirky appeal. A year after Matt’s ‘Predator goal’ our school team beat our bitter local rivals 3-2 in a humdinger of a derby on a slanted patch of soft brown muck – one slide tackle left a mark from the halfway line to just outside the penalty area.

After the game both teams trudged off the pitch, indistinguishable from each other, in high spirits after a gritty sporting battle. Think George Clooney in Leatherheads, and you get the picture. At amateur and junior level, it is not yet reasonable to expect councils and county FAs to convert the majority of pitches available into artificial surfaces anyway.

In November 2015, however, a vote amongst Football League chairman about the reintroduction of artificial surfaces resulted in a tie, suggesting there is an appetite for it. Maidstone co-owner Ash Casey told The Guardian that it is a vital lifeline for clubs at their level. “The piece of land we wanted was only big enough for one pitch,” says Ash. “So we decided to bring the whole community – to build a 3G pitch that everybody could use on a 24/7 basis. And if we had not done that, we would not have a club today.”

Detractors of the surface point to an increase in the number of impact injuries compared to a natural grass training or playing pitch, and it is hard not to feel there is still a stigma attached to the horrific early versions of Astroturf. Patrick Balemans, Policy Advisor to the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB), explains the attitude in his country. “Some years ago the ratings [of visiting captains] were not really positive,” he told, “But this could have been the result of winning or losing a game. This also had to do with the mindset of some players and coaches might have due to experiences with dated and poor quality artificial turf, so it was not always objective. We can see that this will change as artificial fields become more common in the professional league in the Netherlands.”

Without question, the hottest topic of debate involving technology in football today is Goal Line Technology (GLT). Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter had been reluctant to back the introduction of the system before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa for a long time. His mind was changed by Frank Lampard’s dipping volley off Manuel Neuer’s crossbar being disallowed, despite replays clearly showing it over the line. “It is obvious that after the experience of [the 2010] World Cup it would be nonsense not to reopen the file of technology,” he said. Former Swiss referee Urs Meier has backed the introduction of GLT. “You need help,” he said. “I’m in favour of it. It’s the best way out of this discussion. All the referees want technology. I was always in favour.”

But what about further down the food chain? Current FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin have long been advocates of protecting the “human” element of football for fear that too much tinkering with the governance of the game’s laws will disrupt the relationship between fans, amateur players and the game itself.

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Čeferin has promoted the use of five officials as a more sustainable method of aiding the referee’s decision-making on the pitch without undermining the official’s authority. “With five, officials see everything,” he told the media in Warsaw on 18 June 2012, the night before Marco Dević’s wrongly disallowed goal against England at the European Championships. “They don’t take decisions without being fully aware. There’s also a uniformity of refereeing. For example, they don’t call unintentional handballs. That uniformity has led to more flowing football.”

The timing of his comments before another decision that GLT would have corrected was unfortunate, but one convert is contributory league referee Paul Johnson. “Technology can help with a specific concern, i.e. GLT can assist decision-making on goal/no goal decisions,” he told me. “However, an additional official can support decision-making on a raft of different issues, and from a different angle. I think there is an argument for making their support more visible to the fans, so they can appreciate the support they offer, but all in all, they are a positive addition.”

High-profile mistakes in high profile matches often pique the argument over the importance of technology to intense levels, which threatens to blind many from the bigger picture right down to grassroots level.

While teams competing in the World Cup, Champions League and Premier League have such high stakes and cannot afford, quite literally, to suffer being on the wrong side of such decisions, the rarity of GLT moments make it a non-starter to install such technology lower down the system. “Technology will never cascade down through the leagues,” said Johnson. “It is simply too much of an expense for minimal support. If you think of the number of decisions that require GLT versus the expense of implementing it, no team could justify it.”

It is a fine balance that needs to be struck – satisfying the big fish at the top, where millions of pounds rest on such decisions, and maintaining a universal simplicity about the game. “The game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world,” said FIFA’s former president, Blatter.

The romantic idea that an eight-year-old kicking about on a park in Johannesburg can play the same game as a multi-millionaire global megastar on TV is one that Blatter wanted – and he got it.

Leaving the cost and logistical issues aside for a moment, think about the system itself. During the World Cup in Brazil, TV feeds were crammed full of demonstrations of the German-based firm GoalControl’s system, which used 14 cameras to pinpoint the location of the ball and sent a signal to the referee’s watch in under one second if it has crossed the goal line.

Now used across the big leagues, there is one slight downside, though – it is almost too clinical in its execution. There is no room for the adrenalin-fuelled heartbeats that await officials’ confirmation of a decision, and that is part of what make the game so special.

Other sports use technology to great effect, such as cricket’s DRS referral system and tennis’s HawkEye, but natural breaks in play occur in those events, something that was a major concern of FIFA’s when setting out the parameters to be met by the GLT tender.

Ed Smith, the former England and Middlesex batsman, visited New York to see American Football’s nerve centre for decision making while reporting for the BBC. He explained how 88 screens show live games as assistant officials constantly review incidents before they are even questioned by the referee or coaches. This pre-emptive approach to adjudication has shaved off six minutes per game compared to before Game Day Central was established last autumn.

Communication between the referee and the assistant official watching replays also streamlines the process of arriving at the ultimate decision. Dean Blandino is the NFL Vice President of Officiating who runs the show from the hi-tech New York office, and he argues that the 2 percent of decisions his team make “are part of the beauty of sport.”

For all the furore, the answer to this debate in football may well have been under everyone’s noses all along. How can this be done without creating too much added expenditure, maintaining at least some human element of the process, but improving the rate of correct decisions? Almost every club in the football league at the very least records its own matches, or has television cameras from TV channels for live matches or highlights shows, so the technology is not new.

An extra official would need to be deployed to each match to assess incidents before being asked by the referee, and a time limit could be set at 30 seconds from when the referee requests a replay decision. When you consider how long a free-kick takes to set up, or that the average time for the ball to re-enter play from a goal kick is about 20 seconds, it wouldn’t be such a huge disruption, especially as the occasions when it would be needed are so rare.

In Rugby League and Union, the tension that builds waiting for a Television Match Official (TMO) ruling is every bit as part of the game as errors are. Ultimately, the decision would be made by a human, so there would still be some room for discussion as some mistakes would still, inevitably, be made.

This is perhaps the best way to maintain the connection between sport and fan – debate. “If you think of the millions of column inches written,” continues Johnson, “or the hours of debate that fans take part in every week following decisions made in games of football – where would we be without [human error]? I think there is a risk that too much technology would sterilise the game beyond what we love about it.”

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint

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