Spanish football clubs are cleaning up in European soccer, but it’s not only their ball skills that give them an edge. Technology is playing a major role, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
The secret of Spanish club football success is out. Or, at least, one of the secrets.
It turns out, it is no coincidence that Spanish teams have taken six of the eight berths in UEFA Champions League finals over the last four years – and won the trophy on all four occasions. That’s as many times as they had won it in the rest of the century before 2014, and as many as in the 40 years before that.
Last week, during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, LaLiga, organisers of the Spanish premier football league, lifted the lid on the technology that is giving their clubs an edge. The intention of the demonstration, presented at the stadium of Espanyol, Barcelona’s less-known LaLiga side, was to showcase the state-of-the-art broadcasting technology used by the league to reach 2.5-billion viewers a year. However, they also revealed the tools provided to trainers and clubs for fine-tuning their teams’ performances.
“The aim is for fans not just to watch matches, but to be immersed in an exclusive audiovisual experience,” said Joris Evers, LaLiga’s Chief Communications Officer. “Additionally, LaLiga is unique in providing all its clubs with valuable tools to assist coaching staff and make our teams even better.”
At the heart of the enhanced tactical understanding of Spanish club coaches is a tool called Mediacoach, described as “a suite of cutting-edge match-analysis tools and services”. It was developed by Grupo Mediapro, LaLiga’s broadcast production partner, and provides coaching staff – of all LaLiga teams – with the data to carry out in-depth analysis of their players’ performance as well as opposition tactics.
This may help explain how a team like Atletico Madrid, long regarded as the underdog to iconic sides Barcelona and Real Madrid, could reach two UEFA Champions League finals in the last four years, as well as winning the Europa league twice this decade. An even less fancied side, Sevilla, won the Europa league three years in a row before Manchester United interrupted their run last year.
Why haven’t fabulously wealthy leagues like the English Premiership embraced the technology? It’s not for want of data. In the United Kingdom, Opta collects a massive dataset, live, for the Premier League, but the emphasis is on delivering content to football fans and to the betting industry. The Premiership itself is notoriously slow to adapt to trends, and club managements and coaches are so old school, they would not be out of place in the ealry 20th century.
This is ironic, since broadcasters as well as the Premiership’s own Fantasy League have embraced the use and visual representation of such data.
However, LaLiga takes it to a new level, and constantly looks for ways to add value to the fan experience – with knock-on benefits for coaches. During the showcase at the RCD Espanyol Stadium, these technologies were demonstrated:
“The visual experience on offer to fans of Spanish football has taken on a different dimension thanks to the 4K HDR broadcasts that LaLiga serves up for the two headline games of every matchday,” according to LaLiga. “A total of 20 HDR cameras are used for this purpose, although substantially more are incorporated for special occasions like El Clasico (Barcelona vs Real Madrid), major derbies and key matches in the latter stages of the season, when cameras mounted on helicopters and cranes are among the additions.”
LaLiga claims to be one of the few sports competitions in the world to be broadcast in HDR, and the results are evident: a constant rise in the number of people watching, and growing sales of HDR televisions to football fans.
The RCDE Stadium is a live showcase for the Skycam – an innovation first seen in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup Finals. Essentually, it is an aerial camera located about 21 metres above the pitch to provide overhead footage and a bird’s-eye view of the action.
“The lofty vantage point, coupled with the camera’s ability to spin and travel at great speed, means it offers a special perspective of the pitch,” says LaLiga. “These cameras are compact, high-definition models with a 4/3, 14x zoom wide-angle lens, whose footage is transmitted from the pitch to a mobile unit via fibre-optic cables. They can cover an area of almost 7 000 square metres. During the pre-match build-up and post-match aftermath, as well as at half-time, the three technicians operating the Skycam position it at a height of 3- 10 metres in order to treat viewers to even more detailed shots.”
Intel True View
Intel True View is not a new technology, but its use is evolving rapdly. It allows 360° replays that allow every piece of play to be reproduced in 3D. This gives TV viewers a unique perspective of the action from any angle.
“The 2D videos from each of the 38 cameras in place at the stadiums are processed through a series of powerful Intel servers, allowing for replays to be viewed from any position or angle,” says LaLiga. “This technology is in use on a regular basis, with the system having been installed permanently at the Camp Nou (FC Barcelona), the Santiago Bernabeu (Real Madrid), the Wanda Metropolitano (Atletico de Madrid) and the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan (Sevilla Football Club).”
In December, during this season’s first El Clasico clash between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, LaLiga also premiered a “Be The Player” feature, which puts the viewer in the middle of the action, using the same technology to capture events from the perspective of a player in a specific play. This makes it possible to see what moves a player could have made, or the level of vision displayed by a player in making a specific shot or pass.
The same softare includes a new feature, the Laser Wall, which overlays a virtual wall on the pitch to give a clearer picture of offside positions.
Live 3D graphics
LaLiga offers viewers Live 3D graphics during broadcasts to complement live match data, representing visual support to the data, and displaying tactical and positional analysis during action replays.
The next big thing for LaLiga is virtual reality content, which in effect began with the December El Clasico match. It was filmed with a set of two 360º cameras and four 180º cameras, allowing for both 3D and 2D content. However, the current state of VR imaging, which does not yet offer photo-realistic visuals, means that the 2D experience remains more satisfying.
Next week, when Barcelona face Chelsea in the second leg of their round-of-16 UEFA Champions League clash, both teams will hope to break the 1-1 deadlock from the first leg at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium. But clearly, at Camp Nou, the visitors will be up against more than merely the best club side in the world.