21st century football: Robots and electric shirts

I love busting out the robot on an unsuspecting dance floor … but do I want to watch them play football?

A real time machine would be an amazing thing. Imagine travelling back to see what your parents were like when they were young, reliving past memories of your youth, maybe even go back to that first magic moment and give yourself a few pointers from an experienced hand … who am I kidding, I would use the time machine to travel back in time and make some serious money on sports betting, a la Back to the Future’s Biff Tannen. Other than that totally selfish act I would like to carry out a football experiment: I would pick up someone like Steve Bloomer (England international 1895-1907 & Derby legend), put him in the time machine, bring him back to 2011, and sit him down in front of a top-draw Premiership game.

What would he see when his eyes caught up with the action? A radically different game. The rules have changed, the technology has changed, the players conditioning has changed, the ball has changed and even the grass has changed. It would blow his mind and he would undoubtedly be condemned to the psychiatric ward on this return as he babbled about what football was like in the future.

He would have seen how much his beloved game has been overrun by business. Football is now run on profit and loss, net profit, turnover, wage bills, company structure, corporate culture … I could go on. The classic nature vs. nurture debate is a thing of the past. Players now are nurtured all the time and nature gets them picked up and turned into machines to win matches and drive profits. Old school football is being lost in modern-day technology.

Last week Spurs announced a £50million deal with American sports manufacturer Under Armour to become their technical kit sponsor for the next 5 years. “Under who?” I hear you ask. This is a new beast that is leaving Nike and Adidas, amongst others, in its wake. When I heard this news I thought they would be supplying Spurs with all their under-the-kit gear; the vests and cycling shorts that all players seem to wear these days.

However, Under Armour will actually supply Spurs’ whole kit; home and away shirts, tracksuits, vests, the lot. I didn’t even know they did this. They also make boots as well (they call them ‘cleats’ in America). I thought their niche was supplying fancy underwear that helps regulate sweat and body-heat. I couldn’t have been more naive.

Their current shirt technology, HeatGear, rivals Adidas’ ‘climacool’ system and Nike’s ‘dri-fit’ gear. But for the 2012/2013 season Under Armour are readying to drag us in to the future with its E39 compression shirt. The “E” is for electric. The performance tee features a removable “bug” sensor equipped with a triaxial accelerometer, processor, and 2GB of storage. The tiny chip will measure things like heart rate and breathing and can even analyse an athlete’s individual movements and biometric data. All this info can then be beamed straight to the coach’s laptop or smartphone!

Now I know it sounds crazy, and really it is. For example, if a player is taking a penalty, the E39 will record what his heart rate is. If a player is fatigued, the coaching staff will be able to tell by his heart and breathing rate, crossed with his skin-surface temperature. Soon a player may be hauled off the pitch if the microchip exposes his tiredness. If a player steps up to take a penalty, but has a higher heart rate than he did the last five times he took a penalty then the taker may be changed to avoid a potentially erratic penalty.

Football is becoming a game not of skill, luck, chance or even raw talent, but of scientific precision. Undoubtedly, this is just the start of things to come. No doubt Nike and Adidas et al. have similar technology in development, and it is going to change the face of football.

Perhaps football may go the way of Formula 1 where the driver has become a formality over the years. Twenty machines running around the pitch, their movement and actions nothing more than pre-calculated algorithms.

Perhaps this vision is a way off yet, but take Gareth Bale as a blue-print of the future. He is a machine in every sense of the word and when running on a full tank, he is unstoppable. Now, this is because first and foremost he is an athlete, but not much is left to chance. Bale was having a shocker before Harry got hold of him psychologically and the sports science guys got hold of him physically and bulked him up to condition him into the finest specimen known to football since Cristiano Ronaldo.

So ‘times are a changing’. The modern day football fan is watching a game that is less about football and raw talent and more about science and business; economic success and winning using all the means and technology necessary. Whatever happened to just 22 men, grass, two goals, and a ball? I hope technology doesn’t eventually take away the game we all love.

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