Digitalizing Soccer: Two New Technologies Changing the Pitch

July 18, 2019

If you couldn’t tell from our 2018 Men’s World Cup soccer blog, Sealevel Systems employees love a good opportunity to watch the beautiful game. What you may not know is that we’ve kept up on technology making waves in the sport. This year, two digital technologies have stood out: player monitors and VAR.

Monitoring Soccer Players on the Field

In the last few years, medical IoT has moved from experimental health to standard for many patients with cardiovascular and diabetes concerns. It has become a baseline tool in descriptive healthcare, such as vitals testing and monitoring for athletes. Training facilities around the world in many sports rely on FHE skin patches, watches and other biometric data collecting devices to optimize every single facet of an individual’s performance.

The US Women’s team showed up, rather subtly, in their medical IoT devices during the world cup. These monitoring tools come from STATSports. “Worn in a vest and positioned between the shoulder blades, the APEX Athlete Monitoring devices quantify physical performance including physical load and movement during training and matches for athletes,” explains the company. Using sensors, these vests measure speed, distance, heart rate, and even accel- and deceleration.

All data collected by these devices gets analyzed by specialized sports software designed to identify peak environment, physical condition and even positions on a field for the players. The information also goes toward determining diets, practice drills and other conditioning regimens. These historical records can be used to understand player feedback about their performance or predict if an injury may be coming up, preventing poor management. Apart from player performance, these devices can be incorporated with other high-tech healthcare systems that rely on Big Data and IoT networking to monitor each player’s physical condition such as heart health or hormone levels.

VAR: The New Ref in Town

Short for “video assistant referees,” this is an accountability refereeing system developed for soccer. It was a byproduct of the “Dutch Refereeing 2.0” project in 2012, which developed goal-line technology. This latter tool instantly alerts the ref when the ball completely crosses the goal line, ensuring that goals are accurately counted. The 2.0 initiative came from a concern by sport leadership, especially Lukas Brud of International Football Association. At the time, he said, “With all the 4G and Wi-Fi in stadia today, the ref is the only person who can’t see exactly what is happening and he’s actually the only one who should.”

The new 2.0 electronic process accomplishes its evaluation with different methods. One involves magnetic fields and incorporating a chip into the ball, the latter of which signals to a software receiver when it crosses into the fields. This software then sends a notification to the ref’s watch. There is also a camera system, which uses seven cameras to identify the ball’s location. Merging the photos, the software analyzes the ball’s placement and notifies the ref of the score.

The widely heralded success of goal-line sensing technology prompted the development of VAR. FIFA implemented VAR in the 2018 and 2019 Men’s and Women’s World Cups. Besides the on-field ref, assisted by two line-referees, VAR adds a team of three referees removed from the field by thousands of kilometers. They sit in a digital center with access to multiple video angles of play, watching the game.

In this control room, they watch the game in real-time with interactive touch screens that allow them to zoom in, zoom out, play in either direction, pause and/or select to view all the different angles. In some cases, these referees will call for review after specific instances of concern. However, their assistance can also be requested if a coach or player wishes to challenge the ref’s call. The primary occasions that prompt VAR are goals, penalty decisions and direct red card incidents. Sometimes it is used in yellow card situations, although rarely, and has been helpful when refs mistakenly send off the wrong player.

This control room and review technology requires some of the most advanced computing systems. The variety of inputs from the various video and camera streams, the output onto high-resolution screens, the incorporated communications line between the room and the on-field ref and the immense broadband required to support all these functions means these VAR systems are equipped with cutting edge technology. One of the most essential facets of the set-up is the networking capability. The referees must watch without lag or delay, or else it creates delay on-field when they call for review. Every second taken from regulation time must be played at the end of each half, when players are exhausted.

VAR for the US Women’s World Cup Win

Players, coaches and referees criticized VAR during the Women’s World Cup. Due to the high cost of the equipment, it only gets used at the highest levels of competition. When introduced for the first time, as it was at the Women’s 2019 World Cup, VAR can feel intrusive and wasteful of energy. However, in several instances, it let the US Women’s team recover: receiving free kicks by calling fouls and saving them from opposing scores by calling offsides.