Technology on the ball in Brazil

By Robin McKie

From mind control to player analysis and goal-line cameras, this will be most science-heavy World Cup yet.

The World Cup Brazuca ball. Photo / AP
The World Cup Brazuca ball. Photo / AP

In a few weeks, two key events will cap preparations for the World Cup. Both will take place at the Arena Corinthians stadium in Sao Paulo.

One will involve the national teams of Brazil and Croatia who, on June 12, at 5pm local time, will play each other in the opening match.

The other, even more dramatic, event is scheduled to take place a few minutes earlier. Watched by a TV audience of hundreds of millions, a volunteer who has suffered paralysis is to give the first public demonstration of a mind-controlled exo-skeleton that will allow him or her to walk.

According to the project's leader, Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in North Carolina, the special suit will allow the volunteer - who has yet to be selected - to cross the football pitch using their thoughts to guide the machine's movements. Then he or she will kick the football in the centre circle to mark the official opening of the 2014 World Cup.

"The kick will inaugurate a new era of neuroscience," said Nicolelis, whose project, known simply as Walk Again, has been backed heavily by the Brazilian Government.

For good measure, it will also inaugurate a World Cup that is going to be dominated by technology.

Apart from the symbolic kick-off, other high-tech devices on display will include aerodynamically designed footballs, sensors that will determine when balls cross goallines, and systems that will automatically track players and analyse their performances throughout matches.

Fifa last year announced that it had decided to allow the German firm GoalControl to provide a camera system for the tournament that would reveal, definitively, when balls cross goallines.

"This is going to be the most technologically sophisticated World Cup tournament ever staged," said data scientist Omar Chaudhuri of Prozone, a UK software company that specialises in analysing players' performances during English Premier League games. "Yes, football skills will play a key role in the tournament, but equally any country that fails to use the technologies now on offer to boost its teams' performances is likely to find itself caught out badly."

One technique developed by Prozone involves using cameras positioned around UK football grounds to track players throughout a match. Most players spend, on average, less than three minutes on the ball. Where and how they play for the other 87 minutes of a match is nevertheless crucial to the outcome of a game.

"We hope to erect mobile cameras [at the World Cup] to replicate the system we have in the UK. This would provide managers with critically important data," said Chaudhuri.

Then there is the football itself. The last World Cup's Jabulani ball was widely criticised because of its erratic, unpredictable flight path. Brazil's goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, compared it to a "supermarket" ball, while Italy's Gianluigi Buffon described it as "absolutely inadequate".

The new ball, the Brazuca, has been designed to avoid these criticisms. According to its maker, adidas, this has been achieved by giving it a rough surface in the form of long, deep seams. These agitate the air flowing over the ball but reduce the size of "wake" behind it. The Jabulani's smooth surface created a mixture of turbulent and smooth airflow that left an asymmetric wake behind the ball.

- Observer

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