The future of football is all about high-tech innovation

For sports like football to remain appealing to this and future generations, we have no choice but to keep integrating technology. And quite a bit more substantially, too.
  • Technology-enhanced players and training 
  • Talent scouting with artificial intelligence
  • Algorithmic injury predictions
  • Player health monitoring
  • How technology improves the game  
  • The high-tech stadium experience of the future
  • The fan experience gets up close and personal
  • The rise of football technology innovation hubs
  • Robot football – a bit of fun ‘n games, or is it?
  • How will football change in the decades ahead?

Technological advances that many people dreaded coming to sports have actually proven not to be so disruptive after all. In fact, technology has actually greatly enhanced sports in recent years, for the athletes as well as for the spectators. Take, for instance, goal line technology, or sensor tech that measures, analyses, and helps improve athlete performance. “When it comes to the current generations – everything they do and experience has some kind of tech element in it. And for sports to remain appealing to this and future generations, we have no choice but to keep integrating technology. And quite a bit more substantially, too,” says futurist and trendwatcher Richard van Hooijdonk. In the future, we can expect athletes to be kitted out with more and more analytics technology. “Think micro sensors in shoes and shirts, or even nanochip implants. And, of course, sports fans will also be served increasingly tech-enhanced sports entertainment, with information-enriched viewing like first-person views. Which football fan doesn’t want to experience what a football player sees, feels, hears, and even senses, and – most importantly – how fast he kicks the ball?”, Van Hooijdonk continues. Who knows, attending a football match may someday even become a fully interactive experience. When it comes to officiating, a lot of stuff has changed in recent years as well. Video refereeing, for instance, enables much more accurate and reliable decision making. And then there’s the future of training – in which sensor-enhanced balls teach players how to perfect their control of the ball, and slow motion cameras help improve players’ kicks and other moves. 

Technology-enhanced players and training 

The use of technology in football and other sports is becoming an increasingly common, as well as necessary, occurrence and revolutionises the way in which football training is approached. Heart rate monitors and GPS trackers on vests, advanced monitoring and camera systems, apps to track official games, and training sessions with drones – all this, and various kinds of other technologies, provide a wealth of information, such as a player’s muscle fatigue or the evolution of his performance throughout a football season. Once collected and analysed, all of this information leads to improved performance. GMR (‘gamer’) from Google, Adidas, and EA, for instance, is a smart shoe insole and app system that automatically measures data on running distance, dribbling, passing, and different types of kicks, such as normal and penalty kicking. The German men’s national football team is kitted out with smart Adidas jerseys that track distance, speed, and pulse to help optimise training schedules and develop game strategies. Coaches can also use this information to pick up irregularities or patterns indicating a change in player performance, which could indicate an upcoming injury.

Professional football clubs make use of vast databases containing datasets and video footage on players across the globe. This not only helps them devise optimised training for their own players, but it also gives insight into the opposition, and informs their decision making on the recruitment of new players. The information in these databases can be analysed and processed by analysts and sports scientists, but this can also be done by artificial intelligence, and much more efficiently, in fact. Big data platforms like IBM Watson, for instance, can identify patterns that even the most experienced coaches are unable to detect. Leatherhead FC is one of the football clubs that uses IBM Watson for the planning of training sessions. The additional NLP (Natural Language Processing)  application provides data in a question-and-answer format. The team has used the technology to identify the best playing styles, formations and weaknesses, while boosting relationships with players by having solid evidence to back-up observations on ways they can improve their game. “We used it for training sessions, to analyse previous performances and look at how we could improve future performances,” according to manager and assistant manager Nikki Bull and Martin McCarthy.

Although COVID restrictions have made training complicated and in many cases even impossible, the Feildians Athletic Association has found a way to continue training during lockdowns – virtually – using Dribble Up Smart balls embedded with smart sensor technology. Football players download the Dribble Up app and the training can begin. The smart balls challenge the player to become more fluent with all parts of their feet and provide game-based competition with players from around the world. Other ways to make sure football players continue their training is via robotics. Take the RoboGym for instance, developed by experts at RWTH Aachen University, the German Sport University Cologne, and BEC GmbH. This multifunctional robotic weightlifting device helps athletes improve their performance and shortens their recovery following an injury. The RoboGym is gentle on the joints, preserves muscle strength, and prevents injury. The digital twin section of the RoboGym represents a skeletal model of the athlete, in which not only anatomical, but also functional and performance-related parameters, are combined. Based on these metrics, training exercises can be adapted to the individual athlete. The data generated during training sessions is displayed in real time and saved to the cloud. Stored training data and system settings can be accessed on every RoboGym machine for every new training session.

Talent scouting with artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is also increasingly used to help identify young football talent. Because there is so much money at stake, football clubs don’t want to leave anything to chance, especially when it comes to recruitment. These days, talent scouting is a highly sophisticated operation, encompassing international networks of talent spotters, analysts, and advanced technology to sort through vast databases containing data and video footage. AiSCOUT, for instance, enables anyone to upload footage of themselves during training and exercises, performing specific physical and technical drills. AiSCOUT’s artificial intelligence capability then produces scores. Professional scouts can access insights into any of these player’s athletic, technical, psychometric, and cognitive abilities. This gives aspiring young players across the world better opportunities to be discovered. AiSCOUT founder and CEO Darren Peries says: “There are players who will never be scouted and we’re using technology to reach these players. The platform will be available to any club that wants to use it. Elite clubs might uncover rough diamonds, lower-league clubs can expand their talent pools, and national federations can find players that might be eligible to play for them in international football.”

Algorithmic injury predictions

The most important challenge for any coach is how to discover that potential 1 per cent in marginal performance gains. Enter artificial intelligence. AI can be used to keep a player in top condition or predict when he is about to suffer an injury. In fact, this technology is fast becoming a critical component of the game. The new Zone7 artificial intelligence programme, for instance, inputs data from medical profiles, fitness assessments, and wearables to determine which players might be at risk of injury. More than 50 clubs across the globe already make use of the Zone7 AI programme. The company works with European football franchises, NCAA teams (including field hockey, lacrosse, and football), MLS clubs, MLB franchises, and national Olympic teams. In order to protect any competitive advantage the programme may provide, however, many clubs prefer to remain anonymous.

The system provides green, yellow, and red indicators for players’ daily risk levels, enabling a coach to decide whether to dial down the intensity of a particular player’s training sessions to minimise the risk of injuries. Jordi Cruyff, who played for Barcelona and Manchester United before working as a coach and sports director, says “The system had generated warnings for five of seven key injuries that […] club suffered, which was clearly not a coincidence. I’m not a big specialist in this kind of technology, but I did see with my own eyes the results that it had.” Approximately one million training sessions and injuries have already been recorded and analysed by the system, and as more athletes are entered into the database, Zone7’s software will become even more sophisticated. According to the Zone7 website, the system has already achieved 95 per cent accuracy and has led to a 75 per cent reduction in injuries. 

Player health monitoring

“Traditional monitoring of athletes during sports used to be done via complicated, tethered systems. As a result of the miniaturisation of sensors and the improvement of data storing and transmission systems, this has significantly changed in the past decade, and monitoring systems are now available as wearables and smart clothing,” says Van Hooijdonk. Smart clothing items – like gloves, socks, swimsuits, shorts, shirts, pants, and bras – are typically made from advanced textiles with interwoven circuitry, sensors, and additional hardware. Smart clothes connect to smartphone apps or laptops via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Depending on the item and its purpose, smart clothes can gather all kinds of data, such as running speed, muscle activity, breathing rate, heart rate, perspiration and temperature, step counting, calories consumed, altitude, distance tracking, cadence, anaerobic threshold, fitness and stress levels, and many other metrics. Smart clothes and wearable devices provide unique opportunities to study athletes during competition and training, which leads to improved safety protocols and optimised performance. 

During a training session last year, former Real Madrid goalkeeping legend Iker Casillas suffered a heart attack, which kickstarted his quest for a better understanding of his health. Casillas found that remote sports cardiology technology could help him and others gain that understanding. The pioneering startup IDOVEN specialises in remote sports cardiology and aims to help prevent heart problems – like myocardial infarction – in athletes. The company’s technology is based on artificial intelligence and consists of a monitoring kit that continuously keeps track of the athletes’ heart while training and resting. According to Dr Manuel Marina Breysse, cardiologist and CEO of IDOVEN, AI can automate the diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmias. Outsourcing analysing ECGs to algorithms generates results in under a second, which not only saves lives but money as well. The system combines AI with non-invasive analytical technology, which results in remote diagnosis and early detection of problems, enabling immediate treatment. The medical innovation has been tested by the best elite athletes and will be available to teams, clubs, and federations across the world.

How technology improves the game 

Technology has completely disrupted the way football is played and experienced. We now know nearly everything that happens on the field, as multiple HD cameras enable us to see every move from all angles imaginable. Game information is transformed into statistics, which significantly enhance (watching) the game. We can see, for instance, in which part of the field a player spends the most time, how many passes he made, where he made them, and to whom. Technology enables spectators to experience football on a whole new level. New technologies on the field ensure that games are more enjoyable, especially when it leads to the correct decisions being made, which in turn leads to fewer game interruptions and less frustration.

Goal-line technology

In the modern game, where the stakes are sky high and international reputations are on the line, the introduction of goal-line technology (GLT) has been a highly significant and critically important development. GLT determines whether or not the ball has crossed the goal line. Within a fraction of a second, this information is transmitted to a special watch worn by the referee, ensuring an immediate response and preventing stoppages or other interferences. GLT was officially approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in July 2012, and is currently used in top European domestic leagues and at major international competitions. 

One system that accurately helps determine whether a ball has crossed the goal line is the CAIROS GLT smart ball system, consisting of a football equipped with sensors and electromagnetic strips under the goal posts. This technology tracks the ball with extreme accuracy by measuring the magnetic field. Data is then sent to a computer to determine whether the ball indeed crossed the line. Then the match official is notified via a smartwatch. While CAIRO is IFAB-approved and Adidas-backed, one of the system’s main drawbacks is its high cost. 

Then there’s the British Hawk-Eye System, a technology that’s being used in tennis, cricket, and football. This system consists of seven high-speed cameras around the stadium and tracks ball movement. Thanks to triangulation, the system is aware of the ball’s location and knows when it crosses the goal-line, at which point the referee is notified via a sound signal. While the system was rolled out for use in the English Barclays Premier League in the 2013-2014 season, due to the system’s high price, a majority of clubs in the two top tier leagues in Germany decided against it. 

Another system that’s used to confirm when a ball crosses the goal-line is the German GoalRef system. Used for the first time during the 2012 FIFA World Cup, it uses the principle of magnetic induction. The magnetic field that’s generated around the goal changes when the ball – which is fitted with a passive electronic circuit – crosses the goal line. An encrypted radio signal is then sent to the referee’s special wristwatch. GoalRef is approved by the International Football Association Board for use in professional games. 

Robotic assistant referees

In recent years, offside calls have been coming under increasing scrutiny, with VAR seemingly leading to more issues in the Premier League than it solves. VAR (video assistant referee) is a match official who uses video footage to review decisions made by the head referee. VAR has left fans disappointed on various occasions, due to football players being caught offside by – for instance – their armpit, even though the rest of their body was well onside. To solve these challenges, FIFA is considering a new approach: the use of robots. And this is not a joke, as the sports organisation is planning to implement the technology in time for the 2022 World Cup. One of the systems being considered is the Tracab programme developed by Sweden’s Chyron-Hego. The technology makes use of AI-driven ball tracking, in combination with limb tracking and skeletal modelling. “Tracab can determine the exact moment of a critical ball pass and the precise location of involved players and their limbs relative to the goal line,” according to the company. Robotic assistant referees have already been piloted during December’s Club World Cup in Qatar. Because the system automatically creates the lines and sends out an alert in the case of an offside position, the video assistant can review (offside) game situations much faster. 

The high-tech stadium experience of the future

It’s been very important, especially during the recent lockdowns, for fans to keep feeling that they’re somehow still part of the stadium experience. And because it could be a while until stadiums with thousands of spectators will again become a normal occurrence, the football arena experience will have to be brought into spectators’ homes instead. One way to do this is by broadcasting games in virtual reality (VR), which has already been done with some NFL and NBA games. This could keep the collective ‘sense of belonging’ alive, irrespective of where the football fans are. Other options include live feeds via social media, multiple camera and audio options, or even fantasy games and sports betting during live broadcasts. “We clearly start to understand that football is nothing without fans,” says Mathieu Lacome from Paris Saint-Germain Football Club. 

Remote cheering

For football players it’s no fun to play in an empty stadium either. Yamaha found a solution to this challenge. In an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a normal match, the musical instrument maker developed the ‘Remote Cheerer powered by SoundUD’ app, which is connected to 58 speakers around the stadium. The system was initially developed for people unable to attend football matches in stadiums, such as hospitalised children, disabled and elderly people, and other supporters. During a trial match between Japanese football teams Júbilo Iwata J-League and Shimizu S-Pulse, for instance, spectators situated in various remote locations were able to use their smartphones to send club chants, jeers, cheers, and applause into the stadium. 

Fans could even send their audio to specific parts of the stadium to support football players who scored a goal, so that it seemed as if the supporters were actually present in the stands behind the goal. “The shouts of the fans are an essential element of the match atmosphere. As a former professional football player myself, I know how emboldening the support of the fans is to players on the field. S-Pulse is eager to continue to make the most of the club’s resources in order to assist with the development of this system,” said Junpei Takaki of football club S-Pulse. Yamaha has started offering its system to enable remote cheering for various football clubs at selected matches, enabling new ways of spectating sports in this age of remote support.

Digital crowd management and automated temperature checks

While restrictions will probably start easing up soon and football stadiums around the world will eventually fill up once again, we will undoubtedly still need to keep adhering to social distancing and other measures, such as temperature checks. English football champions Liverpool are considering using the Situational Awareness Builder (SAB) platform developed by G2K Group, a German tech company with global operations, to assist with this. SAB is a scalable IoT platform that connects data from all relevant systems with AI and machine learning algorithms, enabling enhanced stadium management and optimised fan experience. The platform can assist in the early detection of events like fights, fire or smoke, and vandalism. Notifications can be visualised on static screens and forwarded to a mobile device as well. The platform can also help with automated face mask compliance, perform temperature checks, and offer digital crowd management. Following a recommendation from league partner Microsoft, the SAB solution has been tested by German football club Borussia Dortmund, as well as by La Liga at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium. SAB is expected to become part of the Bundesliga’s plans for bringing fans back into football stadiums in the future.

In-stadium drone security

The omnidirectional drone detection, identification, and mitigation system DroneFox can help visualise how stadiums can be protected from, for instance, drone airspace intrusion. The system, developed by WhiteFox Defense Technologies, can determine a drone’s movement as well as its threat level in real time. Once drones are determined to be hostile, DroneFox can intervene and land them safely. “Stadiums are just one of the many sites that DroneFox is securing against rogue drones. We are seeing more and more stadium customers desiring protection from reckless and malicious pilots. As commercial drone popularity increases, the right counter-drone infrastructure is critical to support safe integration with society,” says WhiteFox CEO, Luke Fox. DroneFox was piloted by international government representatives at Southern California Soccer Stadium where drones from different manufacturers were buzzing around. The system managed to detect and identify the drones in real time, and display a live video feed of the machines. DroneFox can also integrate with other counter-drone solutions to create an even more comprehensive airspace security solution.

Another stadium security drone system is being developed by the Blue Jay student team at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands. The drone will be assisting police officers, security personnel, and firefighters during events in and around the Philips Stadium. “The drone is able to recognise unusual situations and pass them on to the emergency services. We want the drone to be able to bring an AED to a victim as well. In addition, we are working on a feature that allows the drone to communicate, for example in order to guide people to an exit,” explains Emmie Schoutens, Blue Jay PR manager.

The fan experience gets up close and personal

When it comes to fan engagement, lots has changed in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic. And as fans are a critical factor when it comes to revenue growth, clubs will need to continuously engage them in new and exciting ways. Some exciting examples that come to mind are virtual reality and hologram technology. 

Virtual reality & holograms

Virtual reality will make it possible to find yourself sitting in a sports stadium, next to your friend – who is actually located on the other side of the world – watching a big game and chatting to each other. All you have to do is wear a VR headset and you can be anywhere you want to be. Watching football games in VR will become more prevalent as technology progresses. And now that the pandemic has forced millions to watch games from home, we expect this process to significantly accelerate. In the near future, watching a game using VR and even hologram technology will no longer be an exception. Most people these days basically carry a small supercomputer in their pockets, creating many opportunities to enhance and expand the fan experience. The next step might be holographic representation, enabling a situation where football players could be projected onto the field from thousands of kilometres away. “In the not-too-distant future you can imagine Real Madrid supporters in São Paulo watching the game in their stadium at the same time as the fans in Spain. It’s all about coming together for the collective experience,” says Christopher Lee, founder of Serie Architects, a firm that has gained a reputation for designing distinctive buildings in the public realm.

Japan’s bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was full of promises to develop technology that would allow it to broadcast the event live internationally in 3D, enabling 400 stadiums in 208 countries to provide 360 million people with real-time 3D coverage of the games. These would be projected onto gigantic screens and captured in 360 degrees by 200 HD cameras. The games would also be broadcast in holograms – provided the technology would make this possible by then. The holographic projection would create the illusion that the football players were actually present on the fields in stadiums across the world. In addition, microphones below the playing surface would record sounds – such as ball kicks – to make the experience even more realistic. Translation earphones would enable fans from different countries to talk to each other. For football clubs and many other stakeholders, these kinds of developments would undoubtedly lead to interesting opportunities in the future to optimise fan engagement and generate additional revenue streams.

Augmented reality sports jersey

The official jersey for English Premier League team Southampton FC has received a high-tech upgrade. Fans who scan the AR-enhanced sports jersey with their smartphones will see, for example, midfielder James Ward-Prowse appear in their homes in 3D. The jersey was created for the upcoming 2021/22 season, celebrating the team’s 20th anniversary since moving to its current stadium, St Mary’s. In the future, Southampton could upgrade their AR capabilities to project goal replays and other match highlights.

Interview your favourite football star in real time

Throughout the Major League Soccer (MLS) All-Star game in 2018, where Juventus played against the best MLS players, former Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan wore a microphone and earpiece. Moving around the penalty box, Guzan was seen speaking, which confused spectators at first. But then it turned out that he was wearing a mic, which enabled him to chat to the TV commentary team in real time and answer questions after a goal or a save. An idea would be to take this concept further and get players to respond to questions tweeted by fans during the game, maximising fan engagement and further increasing the entertainment value of games, especially when viewed at home. This wasn’t the only time in American sport that players got mic’d up, however. The NFL, for instance, regularly mics up its athletes, taking fans ‘inside the game’, which makes for entertaining and memorable sports moments.

GoPro offers first-person view of the game  

In another All-star game, this time against Real Madrid in 2019, the referee wore a GoPro on his head, offering fans a first-person referee perspective. This enabled viewers to literally follow the game from the field and witness, first hand, how the referee interacted with the football players. That same year, Ecuadorian club Emelec played a friendly match against Peruvian club Sporting Cristal. When there were five minutes left in the game, a professional football player was exchanged for an Emelec fan wearing a GoPro around his chest. The fan’s dream came true – experiencing five minutes as a ‘professional player’. An added benefit for the other fans was that they got to experience  the game through a player’s perspective.

The rise of football technology innovation hubs

Chinese football is taking technology in sports another couple of steps further by establishing football technology innovation hubs. Chinese Super League side Dalian Pro, for instance, have started an innovation hub in Dalian in Northeast China, in collaboration with FIFA. The aim of the collaboration is to focus on research, testing, and developing new technology standards for youth football. Rafa Benitez, head coach of Dalian Pro, says: “As a coach you need to make sure you have access to the latest technology. To be part of this project is good for Dalian Pro and also good for FIFA who can use our players and our academy to innovate and apply new technologies. Having the latest software in our hands will enable us to try and improve our players and hopefully we will see international players for China coming from our academy in the future.” 

And in Spain, football club Valencia is also involved in a football innovation hub, in collaboration with the non-profit Startup Valencia. The club is looking for various startups with innovative solutions in areas such as sports science, medicine, fan engagement, and smart stadiums to participate in the football innovation hub initiative. The programme will offer networking opportunities with companies associated with the team’s business club and Startup Valencia. Selected startups will also receive training and advice from experts as well as access to workspace located at the club’s Mestalla Stadium. Startup Valencia president Juan Luis says: “The programme will allow startups to have the opportunity to learn from within how professional sports clubs work, an environment where there is currently great potential for innovation. In addition, it will contribute to the international positioning of the Valencian startup ecosystem with the help of a global brand such as the one represented by Valencia CF.”

Robot football – a bit of fun ‘n games, or is it?

A team of researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands is working on the development of humanoid football robots. Every year, these robots compete in the RoboCup – the robot football world championship – against robots from various other universities, companies, and research institutes. During this annual global event, the best team of autonomous football robots is selected. Since the birth of the first robot football team fifteen years ago, the TU/e football robots have become regular participants and have made quite a name for themselves. In fact, the TU/e bots have already won the RoboCup world title four times. After each annual championship, the competing teams share their knowledge, enabling everyone to continue innovating. This, of course, is in sharp contrast to human football coaches, who keep their strategies top secret.

The cone-shaped football bots move around on three wheels, enabling them to swiftly change direction. They have ‘head’-mounted cameras with spherical mirrors that enable them to look around them and recognise team mates, opponents, the ball, and lines on the field. And to kick the ball, the robots use electromagnets. To perform well in these championships, the football machines have to be able to understand the rules, possess good locomotion skills, be able to dribble, interact and collaborate, master path planning and localisation, and eventually move around on two legs. To determine a strategy, like an attack formation, the robots make use of artificial intelligence to communicate with each other. And as the robots move approximately four metres per second, they have to decide instantly, as the situation on the pitch is changing at lightning speed. 

According to Ainse Kokkelmans, team leader of Tech United at TU/e, “there are several leagues within the league that are all developing a different type of football robot. Ultimately, those technologies ought to be combined so as to create a football robot that is better than any human player.” The ultimate goal (pun intended) of participation in the RoboCup is to eventually play against human players – and win. This much anticipated event is planned for 2050, so the various teams still have quite a bit of time to develop their ideal robo-team. What’s more, the innovations developed leading up to each annual event are often used for improvement in areas like autonomous driving or service, care, and rescue robotics. 

How will football change in the decades ahead?

While many of the innovative technologies discussed in this article are either already available or being developed, we’d also like to peek a little further into the future of football. Expectations are that towards 2050 and beyond, technological advances will have completely transformed this highly popular sport far beyond goal-line sensors and virtual reality. “Three decades from now, we might see innovations like ‘active skin’ come into existence, technology that enables computers to connect players’ nervous systems. Initially for tracking and monitoring purposes, later on it might also be used for neural stimulation in order to assist football players to even further enhance their performance,” says Richard van Hooijdonk. Fans could be watching miniature 3D recreations of football games anywhere they want, controlling the viewing angles as they please, and even controlling players on the field. Football training will undoubtedly also become increasingly advanced, with special balls that can tell you how to improve your control, aim, and power on the ball. The progression of technology in the future of football will help advance this beloved sport to an increasingly high-tech – and even more engaging – game for its millions of fans to continue to enjoy.

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