KALININGRAD, Russia – As gigabytes of data flow from field to fingertips, click by click, the technological divide has been closing between teams at the World Cup.
While the focus has been on the debut of video assistant referees, less obvious technical advances have been at work in Russia and the coaches have control over this area, at least.
No longer are the flashiest gizmos to trace player movements and gather data the preserve of the best-resourced nations. All World Cup finalists have had an array of electronic performance and tracking systems made available to them by FIFA.
“We pay great attention to these tools,” Poland coach Adam Nawalka said. “Statistics play an important role for us. We analyze our strength and weaknesses.”
The enhanced tech at the teams’ disposal came after football’s law-making body – on the same day in March it approved VAR – approved the use of hand-held electronic and communications equipment in the technical area for tactical and coaching purposes. That allows live conversations between the coaches on the bench and analysts in the stands, a change from the 2014 World Cup when the information gathered from player and ball tracking systems couldn’t be transmitted in real-time from the tribune.
“It’s the first time that they can communicate during the match,” FIFA head of technology Johannes Holzmueller told The Associated Press. “We provide the basic and most important metrics to the teams to be analyzed at the analysis desk. There they have the opportunity either to use the equipment provided by FIFA or that they use their own.”
The KPI – key performance indicators – fed by tracking cameras and satellites provide another perspective when coaches make judgments on substitutions or tactical switches if gaps exposed on the field are identified.
“These tools are very practical, they give us analysis, it’s very positive,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. “They provide us with insight. They complement the tools we already have. It improves our work as coaches, and it will help footballers too. I think technologies are a very positive thing.”
It’s not just about success in games. Player welfare can be enhanced with high-tech tools to assess injuries in real time allowed for use by medics at this World Cup. Footage of incidents can now be evaluated to supplement any on-field diagnosis, particularly concussion cases.
A second medic “can review very clearly, very concretely what happened on the field, what the doctor sitting on the bench perhaps could not see,” FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D’Hooghe said.
Pekerman is pleased “football is advancing very quickly.” Too quickly, though, for some coaches who are more resistant to the growing role for machines rather than the mind.
“Football is evolving and these tools help us on the tactical and physiological side,” Senegal coach Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said. “We do look at it with my staff, but it doesn’t really have an impact on my decision making.”
Hernan Dario Gomez, coach of World Cup newcomer Panama, has reviewed the data feeds. But ultimately the team has been eliminated in the group stage after facing superior opponents.
“This is obviously very important information, but not more important than the actual players,” Gomez said. “We think first and foremost about the players and the teamwork that is done.”
The data provided on players by FIFA is still reliant the quality of analysts interpreting it.
“You can have millions of data points, but what are you doing with it?” Holzmueller said. “At the end even if you’re not such a rich country you could have a very, very clever good guy who is the analyst who could get probably more out of it than a country of 20 analysts if they don’t know really how they should read the data and what they should do with it.
“So it’s really up to each team and also up to each coach because we realize that for some coaches they say, ‘Look I have a gut feeling … I don’t need this information.“’
FIFA is happy with that. The governing body’s technical staff – the side often eclipsed by the high-profile members of the ruling-council – will continue to innovate.
But artificial intelligence isn’t taking over. For some time, at least.
“People think now it’s all driven by computers,” Holzmueller said. “We don’t want that at FIFA.”
Samuel Petrequin in Kazan, Pan Pylas in Volgograd and Karel Janicek in Yekaterinburg contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.