An Impossible Boxing Day: Why European Football Stops at Christmas
European football fans ask themselves this question every single Christmas. Why aren’t there matches on?
Steve Gera has spoken to Julie Uhrman and Julie Foudy, the co-founders of the Los Angeles based women’s soccer club, Angel City FC. The program was set up in July of this year and the plan is to start playing in the Women’s Soccer League (WSL) in 2022. And it has received plenty of media coverage because it is sponsored by celebrities like Natalie Portman, Serena Williams and Eva Longoria.
Foudy and Uhrman admit that it is very difficult to generate the same passions around soccer in the United States as in Europe. Not only because the sport has less tradition, but because there are no big clubs that have generation after generation of fans. In the United States, you can’t just support your grandfather’s team.
So, the founding of a club in the modern era needs to be done on a different basis. According to Uhrman, Angel City will be closely related to its community. They wanted to start something that goes beyond football. In fact, ten per cent of the profits will go back to the community in the form of social responsibility programs. As well as winning trophies, education will also be among the goals, and they won’t settle for merely playing football and offering entertainment, their idea is to build a brand around Angel City.
But they also have ambitious long-term sporting plans. The main reason for the club is to make women’s football more popular. That’s not a hard thing to do, they feel, because the players are well-known, they have followers on social networks, they play good football and all that’s missing are the kind of investments that they have made. The positive thing, Foudy says, is that as soon as the news broke that they were forming a club, they started getting several calls from other cities where people wanted to do the same thing.
The problem with women’s sports about twenty years ago in the US, continues Foudy, is that audiences only spiked for the Olympic Games or the Women’s World Cup. Those competitions would get a good following, but after that, interest dropped. Investors complained that they were putting money into the game, but the fan numbers weren’t growing. Now all that has changed and it is the ideal time to invest. A new era has begun. What’s more, women footballers used to always wonder why more wasn’t being done given all the potential that this sport had. It is here where they appreciate the efforts being made by teams like Barça or Chelsea, because they have served as an example and a role model for others.
Sunny Lu, CEO and co-founder of VeChain, Alexander Dreyfus, CEO of socios.com and Marty Bell, of Rakuten Blockchain Lab, have discussed the potential for Blockchain in the sports industry. It is a technology that could determine the interrelation between companies and their customers in the near future and also between sports clubs and their fans. It would no longer just be a case of offering content to fans, but of adding them to the programme. They would become part of the club.
The fans of the future are a challenge for big clubs. They are transnational, and come from very different cultures, but they all support the same team. Dreyfus explained that it is currently very difficult to define the exact profile of somebody who supports a football club. Do fans that go to the stadium behave the same way as Twitter followers? He feels that Blockchain could be a key instrument for turning all those fans into the superfans of the future, because it can establish the unified figure of the official fan.
Dreyfus also observes that the day FC Barcelona launched some tokens, they sold out in a matter of minutes but only five per cent were sold in Spain. There was more demand in China. In fact, that country alone has more Barça fans than there are in the rest of the world.
Blockchain is a largely unknown technology and one that is difficult to understand, although its elements are not particularly new. The point is that it cannot be used by itself; it always has to be associated with other businesses, which is why it has taken so long to develop. Sunny Lu is optimistic that the gap can be bridged. He believes governments are already aware that digitisation needs to be faster, especially now with the pandemic.
For Marty Bell, the great importance of Blockchain in terms of its relationship with business lies in its capacity to launch new start-ups. He gave the example of one that he worked with that used a tracking system to enable smart use of buildings to avoid Covid. This is something, he laments, that could have been implemented very quickly in stadiums.
Laurie Shaw of Harvard University has presented a study on corner kicks. After analysing thousands of corners, he has reached the conclusion that there is still more work to be done on both attacking and defending strategies around this set piece. He began by presenting statistics on European top flights. In Portugal, where he has been working with Benfica, only 45 goals were scored from 3,082 corners. A 1.5% success rate. In the Bundesliga the rate was 1.9% and in the Spanish Liga, only 0.8%.
From there, by analysing corner kicks with a tracking technology that captures the movements of each player 25 times per second, he has studied how teams work, simultaneous runs by forwards, and the patterns that are repeated in their strategies. By measuring their behaviour two seconds before the kick is taken and one second after the first touch of the ball, his objective has been to predict where the taker is going to kick the ball, how other players will react and what defensive systems are most vulnerable. A forthcoming paper based on this research will seek to identify the most effective attacking strategies.
In terms of defence, he concludes that a hybrid system, which alternates between man and zone marking, leads to more shots on target than a homogeneous system, i.e. everyone either zone marking or man-marking. As for attack, he is convinced that, with the information that is already available, and the patterns that have been detected, club analysts will be able to start spotting weaknesses in their opponents’ defensive systems and deciding what they are going to do in corner situations.
Former player and coach with international experience and currently a FIFA analyst, Patricia González, has explained the resources she uses to get a team to have its own playing identity. This is something that is achieved on the pitch, but which is also conditioned by external factors other than merely tactical and technical matters. For example, the culture of the society around us can be crucial for optimising the way a squad plays.
Her time in Azerbaijan, where she worked with youth teams, changed her understanding of the game. As she says, she found the culture there was more authoritarian and hierarchical, and she had to learn to be like that, even if though it was not in keeping with her personality and or what she had learnt in Spain. Little things like carrying the balls, which a coach tends to do in Spain, was viewed as self-degrading. She had to consider these matters, for otherwise she would lose her players’ respect.
That’s why González feels that the idiosyncrasy of the place where one coaches, from a macro perspective, is the first thing that must be taken into account before establishing a playing system. It is only afterwards that the training opportunities offered by the competition and the characteristics of the players at her disposal should be assessed.
In her case, she feels that football has changed; it is no longer so rigid. When she was a player, she learned from many coaches exactly what it is that athletes don’t like. She says a lot of things are done just because they are, without explanation. She feels that in order to constantly improve, modern players need to know the whys and the explanations of each tactical move.
From there, she trusts in the players’ natural behaviour. In fact, whatever scheme is applied, it should allow each of them to bring out the best of themselves, although she maintains the culture of the passing game is a well-established one in Spain. When she has been abroad, she has found that people don’t always have the right idea of what it’s all about. Spanish coaches are famous for being in favour of the passing game just because of passing, but for her, the passing game is also a resource and a form of communication, it is something much more profound. It involves timing, taking into account the dominant foot, thinking where the opponent is and the whole system is in general considerably more complex than the simple cliché of tiki-taka.
Given that one of the goals of this congress is to put theory into practice, this edition of Sports Tomorrow is including chefs presenting recipes associated with the different topics covered. Here, Dr. Maria Antonia Lizarraga and nutritionist Mireia Porta show us a number of recipes that might be good for athletes.
To begin with, Dr Lizarraga presented nitrate-rich recipes like gazpacho and beetroot sorbet, a frozen mango and banana smoothie, a salty rocket smoothie, a spinach and apple jelly, a beetroot jelly, beetroot tartare, and a beetroot and tomato gazpacho, which can be combined with beetroot supplements to reach optimal nitrate values (500 mg). She also presented examples of low-FODMAP diets, which have been shown to reduce the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms. As Dr. Lizarraga says, low-FODMAP diets mean much more than gluten, and are especially advisable on days before and after competing. She presented such recipes as tapioca pudding with coconut milk, cream of roast sweet potato with buckwheat bread, and pumpkin with pesto and quinoa. Finally, she focused on vegetarian diets, which are increasingly more in demand and require special attention since they must take into account the importance of vitamin B12, protein and Omega 3. The recipes she suggested included almond cream, which can be enriched with dry almond protein, and baked quinoa with tempeh.
Mireia Porta highlighted the importance of nutrition during the corona lockdown at FC Barcelona. She mentioned how recommendations were made in the form of books and dossiers, especially for youth players, so they could learn about nutrition and the kind of foods that can strengthen their defences. The nutrition department also created 85 recipes, one for each day of lockdown, and not only explained how to make them but also the benefits. The players were also taught to shop healthily and told how to understand labels and know what to look out for.
The first team chef Adrià Ponce also gave us his view of how the pandemic has influenced the work that chefs do with professional teams, from concerns about the limited availability of certain products, to the problems caused by low staff levels. He also highlighted the increased interest and awareness among athletes in the way nutrition affects their health and specifically their defences.
Andrew Jones, a professor of applied physiology at the University of Exeter, has made a presentation in which he analysed the impact of nitrates on performance, covering the physiological grounds to a practical proposal for team sports. Nitric oxide is an extremely important aspect of our physiology because it is a molecule that signals a large number of functions in our body, especially those related to vascular processes, improving blood flow and platelet aggregation. Nitrate supplementation is therefore a very interesting area, since it is converted through a series of reactions in our body into nitric oxide, increasing its bioavailability. Jones commented that nitrate-rich foods are mainly green, leafy vegetables like lettuce, rocket, cabbage, spinach and beetroot.
The latter is one of the most widely used foods as an ergogenic aid, since in juice form, the amount of nitrates that are supplemented to athletes can be accurately controlled. Jones explained that their research is being conducted with this drink while also using a placebo that has the same taste and colour as beetroot juice, but which has had its nitrites removed. This removes any bias from their research.
Jones explained that the nitrate we consume in our diet is converted to nitrite in an important step before converting to nitric oxide. The nitrite peak occurs at 4 hours because it is a non-immediate process performed by bacteria in the mouth. So, the biggest benefits for performance are seen when nitrate is consumed two or more hours before competing, the time it takes for the bacteria to convert it into nitrite and for it to circulate into the muscles.
Something interesting that Jones mentioned is the importance of oral microbiota for the production of nitric oxide. He presented studies in which antiseptic or antibiotic mouthwashes reduce the conversion to nitrite because they eliminate bacteria from the mouth, which decreases the availability of nitric oxide in the blood. Meanwhile, because the salt nitrates and natural juices seem to have similar effects on performance, Jones considers that “as far as possible it would be preferable to use natural foods rather than relying on pharmacological agents when supplementing with nitrates.”
Regarding performance, Jones presented studies in which nitrate supplementation can improve muscle efficiency by 3-5%. For example, in cycling, this nitrate-induced metabolic enhancement could knock 2.8% off the time of a 16 km time trial.
As for team sports, studies have shown that beetroot juice can boost performance in the Yo-Yo test or sprinting by 3-4%. So, as Jones suggests, “sports that rely on high-intensity intermittent exercise, such as football, could benefit from nitrate supplementation.” Another very interesting finding by recent studies is that nitrate supplementation could improve cognitive performance and decision-making in matches.
In football, as a general rule, the tendency is to observe the statistics of each player in isolation. However, these cannot be understood effectively without context. Javier Martín Buldú, from the Center For Biomedical Technology in Madrid, has presented a project that he has been conducting with La Liga, ESADE and the IFISC & ARADIF Foundation, to apply the analysis of complex systems to football clubs.
He began by explaining how a complex system is one whose parts are interrelated and cannot be studied separately. The paradigmatic example would be the human brain with its eighty billion neurons. That case can be compared to that of football. It is not enough to merely focus on the neuron to understand how the brain functions, the same goes for players and their teams.
The study of a football team from the perspective of complex systems requires the establishment of links between the nodes, i.e. the players. One example would be the pass, whereby the sum of all those that occur during a match would establish a network, the presentation of which in a single graph is, in fact, becoming more and more common in team data analysis.
His project takes things further. By tracking data on the position of the players and the ball, it consisted of trying to identify other types of interactions, or links between nodes, that occur between the players. One variable, for example, would be how close players are to each other. If there is a team-mate nearby, it would be a positive link. If it is an opponent, it’s negative.
This processed information has several uses in the study of the game. At a glance, a graph can show the defensive opposition faced by each player in the team during a game. More complex things can also be studied, such as the coordinated movements between players, by analysing the alignment of the vectors that show the speed of their movements on the pitch. Finally, from a spatial perspective, the movement of the ball through different sections of the pitch can also be analysed to read where the game has been unfolding on a quadrant-by-quadrant basis. This shows what area of the field is most important for a team, where it develops its best attacking plays, or where it best moves the ball between the lines.
FC Barcelona physiotherapist Xavier Linde has presented the way the club deals with Achilles tendinopathy, explaining how dynamic isometric, eccentric and functional exercise is used during the return to play process. He also spoke about the benefits of training in sand or with ramps before returning to the usual training schedule. He also explained how the club monitors the evolution of tendinopathy during all stages of recovery, from the moment the athlete gets injured to the moment he/she returns to the pitch.
For his part, researcher and physiotherapist Igor Sancho spoke about the tendon problems that amateur athletes tend to face and how their recovery can be addressed. He highlighted that Achilles tendon injuries are one of the most frequent among runners, due in part to inappropriate training or inadequate load management. For this reason, he comments that management of the training load and its gradual application can help the recovery process.
In line with this, he presented results of his research showing how the Achilles tendon supports a different load depending on the type of exercise performed. Based on this, he proposes a 4-level classification of exercise levels that can be introduced progressively over the course of a rehabilitation program. Finally, an important fact that he highlights is that clinicians should not only take into account pain in recovery processes since it does not always correlate with the force supported by the Achilles tendon.
The second session on Medicine featured doctors Sean Docking, Ebanie Rio and Craig Purdam speaking on the subject of tendinopathy and addressing issues from its diagnosis to treatment.
Dr. Docking, a researcher at La Trobe University, spoke about the limitations of imaging techniques when used alone. The return to structural normality should not be the end of the rehabilitation process, for the goal should instead be functional recovery. In fact, there may be functional recovery without complete recovery of the tendon at the structural level. He also comments how, although structural abnormalities may pose a greater risk of tendinopathy, trying to assess a whole team using imaging techniques to find out who presents the greater risks would be of little use from a pragmatic point of view. Meanwhile, Dr. Ebonie Rio talked about the diagnosis and clinical characteristics of tendinopathy, and how it can be differentiated from other pathologies such as peri-tendinitis, tendon ruptures or bursae. Finally, Dr. Craig Purdam addressed the association between workloads and tendinopathy, commenting on the different loads that can affect the tendon, and the importance not only of the load but also of the loading rate (the speed at which these loads are applied) for the optimal design of tendinopathy prevention and rehabilitation programmes.
Ken Nosaka, director of sport and exercise science at Edith Cowan University, has discussed the adaptations produced by eccentric exercise, as well as its transfer to performance and the prevention of muscle damage.
First, he pointed out that one of the main characteristics of eccentric exercise is that we can produce more force than we can with concentric exercise. For example, he explained that when we do a bicep curl, we can lift about 38% more weight in the eccentric phase than in the concentric one. Another peculiarity of this type of exercise is that it features less metabolic demand, i.e. if we do the same work for a concentric movement and an eccentric one, the latter requires half as much oxygen as the former. If two athletes are pedalling with the same oxygen consumption, the one doing an eccentric cycle can produce up to 3-4 times more work. Another peculiarity of eccentric exercise is that its cognitive demands are higher. For example, if we go downstairs, which implies an eccentric movement, we need to pay more attention than when we go upstairs.
On the other hand, in an analysis of exercise-induced muscle damage, he explained that histological changes do not necessarily represent ‘symptoms’ of muscle damage. This means that even though we might feel a lot of muscle pain, we do not necessarily have muscle damage. In this regard, he claims that the best indicator of muscle damage is muscle strength or function, and that “we need to evaluate muscle function to understand or detect muscle damage”.
In relation to possible muscle damage induced by eccentric exercise, Nosaka explained that the progression of exercise has a protective effect against it. This explains why athletes are less prone to eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Moreover, due to its metabolic and mechanical characteristics, he claims that eccentric exercise is possibly the best strategy to prevent muscle damage after a game or a week with a high training load. Because football, for example, requires a period of 3-4 days for full recovery of the muscle function, an eccentric exercise program could improve recovery and performance by increasing speed, strength, and agility.