FIFA 2010 World Cup: Introducing the Science of Football

07 Jun 2010 Posted by

There are so many sub-plots around the 2010 World Cup that we could just as well have started a website dedicated to them!  For the next 4 weeks, the focus of the world will be on South Africa, the proud host of the world’s largest single sporting event.

Many of the stories that will rise up out of the tournament do not involve science or physiology.  They cover territory like national identity, patriotism, commercialism, corruption (see Foul by Andrew Jennings), cheating, management and so forth.

Then there is a fascinating battle that takes place outside the four white lines at every World Cup, as the big sponsors take one another on for commercial supremacy – Adidas vs Nike, Coke vs Pepsi, Hyundai/Kia vs every other car, and in South Africa, MTN vs Vodacom.  I have often branched in sports sponsorship and management, and at some point during the tournament, I’ll focus on this battle.

But for now here at The Science of Sport, our focus is the science.  And there’s no lack of that, either directly or indirectly.  So we kick off (sorry, I promise that’s the last football-cliche I’ll use until the final whistle is blown) a series on the Science of Football, and look forward to a month of great action on the field, great discussion off it and hopefully some fun with science and analysis along the way.

The Science of Football – topics for discussion

Here are the topics we’ll start off by looking at:

1.  Physiology and performance analysis of football

What are the physiological demands of football?  How far and fast do players run during matches, and how does this compare to other sports?  What are the unique challenges faced by elite players, and how are they different by position on the field?  And most intriguingly, what are the key physiological factors that separate good from great players?

2.  The altitude factor

South Africa presents a unique challenge, perhaps anywhere in the world, in that teams can play matches at sea-level and at 1,700m only a 90 minute flight away, a few days later.

We know that altitude affects physiology and exercise performance.  Significantly.  Greater fatigue, impaired performance, altered pacing strategies.  But what is its impact, if any, on football?  Most teams have chosen to base themselves at altitude, primarily to counteract the potential negative effect.  Some have opted to use altitude tents and houses to prepare at sea-level.  How much time does the body need to adapt and when should teams arrive at altitude?

Evidence and thoughts in response to all these questions will be considered.

3.  Penalty shoot-outs, extra-time and football incentives

Approximately 2 in 5 matches in World Cups and Continental championships will go to extra-time.  Of these, 60% will end with penalties – the 2006 World Cup final stands as Exhibit A.   Penalties add enormous drama, frustration, heart-ache and a bittersweet feeling regardless of which end of the result you happen to be.

But penalties also provide great food for analysis.  Who is least likely to score?  How does fatigue affect results?  Pressure?  Culture of an entire nation?  All have been studied, and we’ll discuss some of the ideas here.

Further, the debate rages about satisfactory ways to end matches.  Penalties are good for suspense, sure, but the search continues to find a way to improve the quality of the spectacle, particularly in extra-time, where goals are a rare commodity.  Economists have considered ways to alter the incentive during extra-time, and we’ll discuss some radical ideas to increase the number of goals scored in extra-time.

4.  Home ground advantage

In the history of the World Cup, no host nation has ever failed to advance beyond the first round’s group stages.  In fact, only six out of 18 hosts has failed to reach a semi-final!  Home ground advantage works – in football, in rugby, in baseball, basketball, Olympic Games.  South Africa is currently experiencing a wave of national identity and support that is growing daily.  Our team, written off as “no-hopers” only months ago, has responded (or have the fans responded to the team?) by going 12 matches unbeaten, and the expectation and hope are palpable.  Self-belief and confidence are the most powerful forces in sport, and home ground advantage can drive it.

Will it be enough for South Africa to make it through to the next round?  I can’t answer that one, but I can share some thoughts on home-ground advantage.  So we’ll conclude our series by discussing this fascinating aspect, looking at what drives home ground advantage, and what implications it has for the results.

Other topics – as they happen

So those are the topics we’ll start off with.  I’m going to try to be as visual as possible, using graphics to illustrate the points rather than words.

I am giving a presentation on the Science of Football on Wednesday evening at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, at 7pm, where I’ll present all these topics, and hopefully some video plus the graphs will give this series a more visual, dynamic feel.  (For those of you reading this from Cape Town, you are more than welcome to attend Wednesday evening, 7pm).

I’m sure there are many other fascinating points for discussion.  On-field performances, for example, though I don’t want to ‘degenerate’ into a blindly emotional fan discussion (lest I be accused of forgetting ‘science’, as people tend to understand science, in its labcoat).  But I’ll certainly be posting thoughts and opinions on the on-field events through the four-week tournament.

So during the World Cup, I’m all ears – if anything jumps to mind, if you are watching a match over drinks with friends, and something comes up, just write in and let’s make the 2010 FIFA World Cup a bonanza of informed debate and discussion!  I’ll try to do justice to every question, provided time and work allow it.

Also, during matches, follow our Twitter feed for live updates (whenever we’re watching, obviously) on scores, action and occasional musings!

Let’s play!


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