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With the World Cup in Russia edging ever closer, an exciting summer of football is on the horizon.

According to organisers, over 1.5 million foreign fans and tourists will be attending matches at Russia’s 12 major stadiums during June and July, with billions more gathering in fan zones, pubs, bars or their homes around the globe to watch the tournament and see who will be crowned as world champions.

With goal-line technology being used for only the second World Cup and VAR (Video Assistant Referee) being used for the first time ever, football is utilising technology more than ever before in its long history.

However, some of the biggest technological advances in the sport are being enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) which is revolutionising football for players, coaches, event organisers and supporters. But how?

Data Capture and Analysis

Back in the 1950’s Charles Reep, a military man and accountant led the way for data capture in sport. He created a system to record statistics around football player movements using a pen and paper. His method is credited with many valuable insights, however, it took him over three months just to analyse the data captured during the 90 minutes of the 1958 World Cup final alone.

So, capturing and analysing data at football is nothing new, but the methods used and the speed at which it is gathered and processed has changed dramatically in recent years. The introduction of video analysis back in the 1990’s provided a far greater depth to the data collated, however, the ability to integrate information from other data sources, enabled by IoT, has taken live analysis to a whole new level.

Data is collected from sensors placed in various areas including; boots, shin pads, heart rate monitor vests, the pitch and on the football itself. These sensors then connect to a low-powered cellular phone transmitter or the stadium’s Wi-Fi network to enable the teams to monitor the data feeds. The world’s biggest business intelligence firms including Cisco and SAP have played key roles in helping with the collection and display of this data. SAP and the current world champions Germany have actually had a co-innovation partnership since 2013, with the German team gaining access to exclusive prototype technologies to analyse information on themselves and their opponents.

All of this means that today’s football coaches have the ability to monitor and respond to real-time developments on the pitch and use live data to inform their tactical choices, a far cry from even a decade ago where it was common practice for a whole team of video analysts to spend days compiling performance data based on hours of footage, before being able to provide any feedback to coaches and players. Now everybody with access to the software can access immediate deep insight into individual player performances and optimise their training schedules to address any weaknesses.

IoT also allows data from these sensors to connect to other networks, enabling it to be layered and shared with both fans and broadcasters. This effectively means that a fan with Wi-Fi or 4G access can see much of the same information as the coach on the touchline, providing them with insight on the teams and individual player’s performances. Perfect for arm-chair tacticians!

And it isn’t just the players' performance that can benefit. Sensors embedded in wearables can even monitor players’ heart patterns and immediately notify club doctors if they detect any major problems. These types of IoT technologies could help to avoid footballing tragedies such as the heart attack suffered by Fabrice Muamba during a match in 2012.

The first Smart World Cup?

The organising committee for the World Cup 2018 has repeatedly spoken about how they will use IoT technologies and smart solutions within the stadiums and the wider infrastructure of the host cities to help ensure a successful event and avoid potential unexpected situations.

Oscar Perez-Cordoba Davila, Managing Director of the European Association for Stadium Management at La Liga, spoke at the IoT World Summit about existing solutions which are now actively used by football clubs in Spain and will be utilised by Russia.

He said; “Clubs use innovative solutions to better manage stadiums and mega-events. First of all, these are effective solutions for operational and technical maintenance of arenas. Air drones are actively used. Security is one of the main priorities. That’s why special technologies are integrated for preventive purposes, and also for effective interaction between clubs, league and city public security services."

The five areas that the Russia 2018 organising committee has focused on with smart technologies to ensure maximum comfort and safety for fans this summer are:

“Smart” security systems – The security of the players, coaches, officials, volunteers, sponsors and supporters is vital at any high-profile sports event. Russia 2018 will be using IoT enabled systems to ensure maximum security and that any threats can be identified, analysed and prevented efficiently. These include face recognition cameras in the crowd, fingerprint recognition systems, ‘smart’ fire extinguishing systems.

New energy-saving technologies – With so many extra people concentrated in cities around the country it is vital that energy consumption statistics can be collected and displayed using IoT. This enables the use of alternative sources of energy when required, to optimise resources not just at the stadiums but in the cities. 

High-density Wi-Fi – It is easy to take Wi-Fi for granted, with free internet access available in most bars, cafes, restaurants and public places. However, providing reliable Wi-Fi for thousands of fans within a single stadium and the services around the matches is a very complex task. The stadiums will require routers and vast amounts of optical fibre to ensure that there is a high level of signal available no matter where you are within the stadium. 

Geolocation systems and mobile services for stadiums – Waiting in a large queue for a beer or hot dog can be very frustrating. Thankfully IoT has enabled a solution. A number of algorithms can now calculate the optimal passage routes and wait time in a line, and non-cash payment services including pre-pay wristbands can speed up service. Apps also exist to enable fans to order food and drinks before they are anywhere near the stadium.

Unified media systems of the football stadium – Being able to provide a consistent message around the stadium is not always straightforward, however, the new stadiums in Russia are able to use a single technological platform with a common control centre in the media room to ensure that all video services are united. This means that you can access the same information whether you are viewing the big screen, are in the concourse, in a VIP box or accessing via an official mobile app on your phone.

IoT in Football… The Future

The relationship between football and IoT may only be at an early stage, however, there are many more benefits that could be seen as a result in the near future.

For example, machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity will ensure that large stadium disasters around the world can be avoided, as police and stadium officials will be able to accurately track, analyse and manage movements of huge groups of fans to avoid any overcrowding or crushing.

Whilst drones delivering food and drink to supporters in their seats may be a stretch too far, it is possible that drones could be used around the outside of the stadium and concourses to allow pre-orders to be delivered to specific collection points.

But what about the game itself? Whilst VAR may provide the referee with extra insight an IoT enabled solution from the NFL could provide much quicker and accurate results for football officials. This would be through the use of smart uniforms, sensors in the football and pitchside receivers, which provide granular location data. Not only would this finally remove the queries around offside decisions, but the league could even monetise this data by selling it to gamers to replay specific team moves on their consoles.

What are your views on the use of technology in football? Does it enhance your experience as a spectator, or is it destroying the traditions of the sport? Let us know in the comments below.

I am a 32-year-old tech lover, self-confessed geek and football fanatic! When I am not playing with the latest gadget you will often find me watching my favourite TV shows including Game of Thrones, Young Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory. Feel free to follow me on Instagram @robbiedunion or Twitter @robbiedunion