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?
Enrique Martín, Smart Project manager at FC Barcelona, has chaired a discussion on what the stadiums of the future will be like featuring Eduardo Martínez, of INDRA, Javier Lorente, of Telefónica, Miquel Gummà, CEO of Foot Analytics, and Fernando Cucchietti, from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center.
We must learn from the experience of the smart city and apply it to stadiums, says Martínez. Everything that we already know about the new cities can be perfectly extrapolated to football grounds. Both the general population and spectators in stadiums demand the same thing. Spectators want the digital services that they already have in their everyday lives so that they can make the most of their visit.
The key to innovation lies in coordination of the stadium with the elements of the city that surround it in order to manage it efficiently and to be able to control what happens inside through images, sensors and data analysis to manage the flows of people. The stadium of tomorrow needs, he concluded, smart access, parking, lighting, sound and waste management, as well as an exclusive payment system and premium services.
For Lorente, the most important thing is to start thinking omnichannel. In other words, appreciating that modern-day people have a dual presence – one in the physical realm and another in the digital, online one. Virtual spaces need to be treated with the same importance as physical ones. Other strategies should be aimed at increasing efficiency, reducing costs, improving the spectator experience and last, but not least, sharing knowledge. Every time that data is used and recorded, it generates even more data that will help to make management better still.
That is the only way to always be ready to innovate quickly if the circumstances so require, as has been made so clear by the outbreak of the pandemic. Crowds can no longer gather in stadiums so the club needs to reconsider what it can offer the fans, both those who usually come to the stadium and those who watch from home. Something similar might happen if the much-heralded Virtual Reality revolution happens and clubs have to adapt their range of services and broadcasts to new platforms.
A basic technology to control the flow of fans in a stadium is tracking via Wi-Fi. Miquel Gummà introduced his company as a start-up that provides solutions for the management of a physical space using statistics and data analysis. It is known that 70% of mobile phone users have Wi-Fi enabled and that alone can control both public transport and stadium usage.
Finally, Fernando Cucchietti spoke about supercomputing in sports venue management. A programme that is being developed with FC Barcelona involves building a digital twin of the Camp Nou. All of the information generated by the fans during their stadium experience is being entered into the twin. With months of data collected, the algorithms can discern different fan profiles and, depending on who the visiting team is, as well as weather and match forecasts, predict the behaviour of thousands of people. The goal is to have clear, unambiguous information about what fans will do before and after the game. And this can not only be used to guarantee fan safety and improve their experience, but also to make sure they make better use of commercial areas.
Francesco Millo, from the IoTwins project, has spoken with Imanol Eguskiza, head of innovation at the Barça Innovation Hub, about the programme that, with funding from the European Union, FC Barcelona is developing with the city’s supercomputing centre.
Millo said that he spent a year visiting innovation hubs and centres around the world to assess the status quo of digital transformation and realised that in order to innovate, the fundamental thing is partnerships between companies from different sectors. Meetings that serve to pool their needs and abilities and develop solutions that can be of use to everyone else.
In this case, Barcelona’s supercomputer is building a digital twin of the Camp Nou. This program needs to be fed with all the possible data that is generated by a football match. Wi-Fi tracking of fans, of their movements with sensors, posts on social networks, and so on, are being used to create an algorithm that can predict their behaviour.
The essence of the project is to be able to perform digital tests and trials of technological instruments and developments. This is something that Millo claims that, if done physically, would take years to do, but with digital twins, cloud computing and data management, it takes a matter of minutes.
The current project will take three years to complete. Barça, for its part, will finalise the details of the flow management of its smart stadium, but the resulting instrument is expected to be exported to other stadiums and other types of venue, such as shopping centres all over the continent.
Pascual Bauer explained the work being done in relation to data science by the DFB Akademie, an institution of the German Football Federation for research and innovation. Its goals include the centralisation of all of the information obtained on German footballers from the age of 12 to carry out research and support national team scouting programmes.
The most interesting investigation they have underway, says Bauer, is trying to find out what determines whether or not a young player will make the leap from amateur to professional level. Since 2004, they have been recording data on the ability of 5% of the most talented players aged between 12 and 16 years old. These physical tests done twice a year include sprint, agility, and ball control among other exercises. With the information obtained, they are also comparing the characteristics that differ between generations. The 50 national team scouts can also access a database on 30,000 games a year to detect talent at medium and low competition levels too.
At the same time, in order to provide a service to coaches, work is being done on standardising all of the data so that even if the tracking technology changes, the same information standards are maintained. The goal is to process data to find long-term answers, and to make that data highly accessible. The idea is that anyone will be able to consult the databases easily and, if necessary, adapt them to their own needs.
One such example that he presented is that of defensive pressure and recoveries after losing the ball, which is the data that most interests German coaches. To satisfy their needs, an automatic detection system is being developed for this aspect of the game. It is based on the idea that if the ball is not recovered after five seconds, the pressure has failed and what happens in the next twenty seconds is analysed instead. This not only accounts for effectiveness, but also the risks that teams take when applying pressure. If this system means that analysts won’t have to waste three hours processing videos and can spend them studying instead, then their role will have been optimised.
National team players have an application that collects their data in different parameters for study by the team’s staff, from nutritionists to psychologists, and from analysts to doctors. The system also takes into account the tracking done at clubs so that when a player joins the national team, their fitness training can be personalised.
Data analysis as a science is still at the early stage of development, and Bauer feels that in order for it to progress, it is essential for multidisciplinary teams to be involved. The divide between data scientists and football experts needs to be reduced, he says. After all, it is very difficult to find someone who not only knows about computer science, but also mathematics and football.
“Historical tracking data can be used to predict the load of a training plan”
John Newell and Andrew Simpkin, from the University of Ireland, and Kenny McMillan, from the Aspire Academy in Doha, have presented a training load prediction system based on historical GPS tracking records. This system can be used for long-term planning of training programmes that can be personalised for each athlete. And the tool can be used in any sport.
McMillan explained that in order to optimise and maximise performance in training while minimising the risk of injury, nothing could be more beneficial than the ability to predict the load that certain exercises are going to suppose. An instant prediction of the physiological load can be used for long-term planning of training sessions from the start of the season.
The type of exercises to be done in each session and their duration can be entered in the instrument. These parameters automatically predict the load or fatigue that each player will be subjected to. Personalised functions can even detect which players will find an exercise easier than others and which ones already know what to do by heart because they have been repeating it throughout the season.
This system can be used to plan an entire season in advance, and was developed by entering historical GPS tracking data, such as distances travelled, sprints, and so on, in exercises classified by their characteristics, whether skills-based, tactical, with or without the ball or recovery. When comparing the research data, the correlation between the real load and that predicted by the instrument yielded coefficients of between 0.79 and 0.97, so the reliability and effectiveness of this type of program could be very high.
Isaac Guerrero, deputy director of FC Barcelona’s Methodology Area, has interviewed the coordinator of the Spanish national team’s youth system, Francis Hernández. The Spanish team has a highly defined playing system that hasn’t changed since it achieved such huge success a decade ago.
Hernández explained that Spain tries to play with the whole team in the opposition’s half of the pitch, dominating possession and trying to create chances that way. This system requires players that are able to break free from the opposition’s pressure. One thing is to create pressure, and another is to feel under pressure, he says.
t getting the team to play in accordance with certain ideas is a task that in itself requires imagination. “The really creative thing in football is getting an idea to take shape on the field”, he says. With this goal in mind and due to the little time that national teams get to train together, Hernández is in favour of only analysing videos of his own team’s mistakes and only scraping the opposition’s game on the surface. In his opinion, overloading a player with information takes more away than it adds.
In the work of a coordinator, he feels that verbal exchange is essential. He himself tries to get what he wants to do across in a very clear manner. For the player to believe in an idea, the message has to get through to him. And this is how joy is achieved in football, which is none other than that which occurs when the correct behaviours are repeated both in attack and defence.
During this performance session, Dr. Anne Hecksteden, a researcher at the University of Saarland, spoke about the individualised management of athlete recovery. As Hecksteden pointed out, this is one of the priority objectives during an athlete’s training because with the right recovery strategy, high workloads can be achieved, reducing the risk of them accumulating fatigue.
Focusing on the process that professionals should follow, the researcher singled out two parts of their recovery management: the first is the monitoring of the athlete’s individual needs and the second is the actual interventions that will enable better recovery of the ability to train. In other words, what instruments can be used and which are most effective depending on the player’s specific status?
To do this, Hecksteden said that “during the monitoring process we need highly detailed information about the player’s status at all times. As far as possible, we need to be able to capture fluctuations in physiological and psychological status throughout the season”. With this in mind, she presented an online tool that her group has developed together with the German Sports Institute that, unlike traditional spreadsheets, details the mood, sleep quality and perceived workload of players in real time. Directly via WhatsApp, players click on a link and fill in different variables that provide the coach with an up-to-date map of the player’s physical and psychological status with which to make decisions about the training schedule. As she stressed, it is of little use to receive this data when it is already a few days old.
A relevant issue that Hecksteden mentioned is the variability between the fatigue and performance parameters. For example, a study of the German national football team has shown that urea and creatine kinase levels vary by more than 40% between players. That’s why she insists that individual ranges need to be established in order to make decisions that can have a real impact on player performance and recovery. In order for these individual reference ranges to be as accurate as possible, she insists on the need for repeated measurements of each individual in order to reduce error.
Henning Langberg, physiotherapist and professor in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, has made a presentation in which he explained that the best way to prevent tendinopathy is to know how to recognise ‘small’ symptoms and control the training load. Although the theory seems easy, Langberg claims that the main problem in practice is “finding the first symptoms of tendinopathy”.
In its diagnosis, the researcher says that tendinopathy has three main features: i) pain when performing an activity, ii) localised pain in the tendon, iii) swelling. Furthermore, if their structure is compared with that of healthy controls, tendons with tendinopathy are larger and have greater vascularity. The pathology is therefore characterised by altered homeostasis of the tissue with accumulation of fluid in the area.
Langberg also emphasised the importance of muscle tissue in the control of tendinopathy, since the mechanical deficit during the injury can be compensated with a motor disorder that modulates the activity of the muscles around the tendon, which is reflected in less muscle activity when the tissue is sore. So, during rehabilitation Langberg insists that speeds and forces need to be applied that mimic the requirements of the particular sport, as during rehabilitation loads are usually much lighter than those that athletes will bear later.
In the second presentation, Dr. Lorenzo Masci, sports medicine consultant, spoke about the educational process in rehabilitation, which according to him is “the most important part of the initial treatment of tendinopathy. We need to educate both athletes and coaching staff about tendinopathy, the loads that can damage the tendon and the use of pain monitoring tools to guide the athlete throughout the rehabilitation process”. He also suggested that practitioners should avoid injection therapy, especially during the initial phase of treatment.
For his part, Dr. Javier Yanguas, a member of the FC Barcelona medical team, explained the club’s strategy so that players can play at least two games a week. The four cornerstones of its methodology are regular and accurate control of the load and pain, isometric and eccentric exercises in each session, treatment with platelet-rich plasma especially when the pain is moderate-severe and tissue disorganisation is an issue and, finally, extracorporeal shockwave therapy.
This new day on physiotherapy featured Dr. Dylan Morrisey, physiotherapist and researcher at Queen Mary University of London, and Dr. Jeremy Loenekke, researcher at the University of Mississippi.
In his presentation, Dr. Morrisey focused on patellar tendinopathy, explaining the possible risk factors and introducing various strategies to differentiate it from other knee problems. As he says, something as common as biomechanical analysis of the way patients land when jumping may not be enough to consistently identify those that are at risk of tendinopathy. Although this could reflect a lack of association between biomechanical variables and the risk of tendinopathy, the absence of consistent relationships may largely be due to the high variability between individuals. Dr. Morrisey also presented, based both on evidence from other research groups and data recently obtained by his own group, the demographic, clinical and sporting variables that differentiate players with patellar tendinopathy from those with other knee conditions. For example, both conditions present similar results in specific questionnaires for patellar tendinopathy such as the VISA-P, but patellar tendinopathy patients tend to present a higher prevalence of lower back pain, and greater pain focused on the upper or lower poles of the knee (rather than diffuse pain in the kneecap). Moreover, patellar tendinopathy is more common in track and court sports that include numerous jumps, and players with this condition tend to have higher training loads than those with other knee pathologies. Finally, Dr. Morrisey presented a few practical examples of how patellar tendinopathy can be differentiated from other kinds of knee pain through exercises and manipulations.
Meanwhile, Dr. Loenekke talked about the potential of blood flow restriction in injury rehabilitation. This technique, consisting of limiting venous flow without totally limiting arterial flow, can attenuate muscle atrophy and loss of strength in situations of immobilisation. Moreover, in combination with low intensity exercise it maximises gains in muscle mass and strength, with the benefits in muscle mass (although not for strength) being similar to those obtained with training at high loads without restricting blood flow. Finally, Dr. Loenekke presented the existing evidence on the effects of blood flow restriction on the tendon. Although there have been very few studies to date and the results have been controversial, recent evidence suggests that just as restricting blood flow maximises gains in muscle mass, it could also increase tendon growth when combined with low-intensity exercise (which does not usually produce adaptations at the tendon level).
The third day on nutrition included a talk by Dr. Raúl Bescós, researcher at the University of Plymouth, and Dr. Ricardo Costa, researcher at Monash University.
In his presentation, Dr. Bescós focused on the microbiota of the oral cavity, which, despite being less popular than those of the intestinal cavity, also have a major influence on health, for example by modulating intestinal microbiota. Specifically, Dr. Bescós focused on the capacity of oral bacteria to reduce nitrate to nitrite, which has been related to better athletic performance, and how factors such as exercise, diet and oral hygiene could alter this ability. Diets that are low in carbohydrates and high in fat have been shown to reduce the presence of bacteria that reduce nitrate to nitrite, while supplementation with beetroot juice has been shown to have the opposite effect. Meanwhile, mouthwashes containing antibacterial agents (such as Chlorhexidine) have been shown to reduce the presence of these bacteria, which seems to hinder the ability to metabolise lactate and maintain the body’s homeostasis, as well as cardiovascular response to exercise.
Dr. Costa also spoke about the effects of low or high FODMAP (foods rich in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) diets on gastrointestinal symptoms. He began by explaining the effects of exercise at the gastrointestinal level, both in the circulatory-intestinal pathway with a reduction in blood flow with consequent ischemia followed by inflammation, as well as in the neuroendocrine-intestinal pathway with an increase in stress hormones and a reduction in digestive and nutrient-absorption processes. Dr Costa also presented different factors that can exacerbate gastrointestinal symptoms, from extrinsic factors like exercise load (intensity, duration or type) or external temperature, to intrinsic factors like sex, intestinal microbiota or diet. Dr Costa also showed how low-FODMAP diets can attenuate carbohydrate malabsorption and reduce the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms during exercise compared to high-FODMAP diets. Finally, he is discussed how, although high-FODMAP diets may be associated with more severe gastrointestinal symptoms during exercise, these diets can better protect the integrity of the intestinal epithelium.