The 2018 World Cup is in full swing, with drama and excitement on the field and a series of ground-breaking innovation off it. The tournament is being broadcast like never before, with fan engagement and player performance data ramped up to unprecedented levels, while even the matchball has been fitted with its own unique technology.
Below are eight of the most eye-catching innovations on show in Russia.
You can't keep it out of the headlines - and rarely for the right reasons...VAR
In March of this year, just 12 months on from the debut of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Australia’s Hyundai A-League – the first time it had ever been implemented in world top flight soccer – the system was declared ready for the World Cup.
Quite simply, the controversial system has been put in place in an attempt to correct poor refereeing decisions. Match officials and video officials communicate with the help of what Fifa has described as a “sophisticated fibre-linked radio system.”
Four video officials are employed to observe every game, based centrally in a Moscow control room. With 33 cameras – 12 of which are in slow-motion – available to the off-field team, their role is not only to collaborate with the referee, but also to search for ‘clear and obvious errors’.
However, only ‘game-changing’ situations can be reversed, including goals, penalties and red cards. Ultimately, however, VAR itself does not make any decisions. It merely advises the referee to review an incident on his mobile screen, which is located next to the two teams’ dugouts.
VAR has been at the centre of a number of World Cup talking points; here, referee Ravshan Irmatov signals for a video replay
If you thought HD gave you a good view, there are some people with an even better one...4K UHD Video
The World Cup is being shown in 4K and high dynamic range by a number of broadcasters including the BBC, Canal and BeIn Sports. The tournament marks the first time that a major sporting event has been broadcasted in such high quality.
The technology uses up significantly more data than typical high definition streams, so in the UK the BBC is limiting the trial to a certain amount of users to avoid damaging the stream quality. It seems to have been a success, with the British public-service broadcaster subsequently announcing plans to show Wimbledon in the format.
M7 Group-owned Dutch satellite pay-TV network Canal Digitaal is also broadcasting with an Ultra High Definition (UHD) option. In France, BeIn Sports has teamed up with Canal+ to offer 56 games in UHD to subscribers with a 4K-ready set-top or Apple TV 4K box.
This tournament will be the first global sporting event to be streamed in 4K
Why confine yourself to watching your country from your living room...Virtual Reality
The BBC has also labelled the World Cup as the first time that virtual reality (VR) has been trialled at a major sporting tournament. Via its official app, every game broadcast by the BBC is available to watch in virtual reality, with the view transformed from living room to stadium.
Anyone with a smartphone or compatible VR headset can use the app and use the technology free of charge. Options include live match stats and close-up action coverage. BBC VR platform is accessible via Android, Apple, Oculus and Samsung, as well as Sony PlayStation devices. Telemundo, the Spanish-language home of the World Cup for viewers in the United States, is also trialling the technology.
All 64 games are available to watch through the lens of a virtual VIP suite, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the game as if they are watching from the stadium in Russiaa.
Peter Blacker, Telemundo’s executive vice president of digital and emerging business, said: “One of the first things we did once we got the rights to have the World Cup was to lobby Fifa to expand the rights to really turn the experience from viewership into fan engagement and to take the game into places they’d never been before.”
The BBC is among a host of broadcasters championing Virtual Reality viewing at this World Cup
Are coaches getting smarter or is technology making their lives easier...Coaches’ tablets
The decision from Fifa to permit two devices – one with an analyst in the stands and one with a coach in the dugout – comes long after other sports, including football, have allowed the use of technology to assist coaches mid-match.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the request to allow each team hand-held technological devices. The tablets provided to each team with will track the positional data of the players, giving coaches and analysts the chance to scrutinise performances according to statistics and to make decisions according to the data provided.
Oliver Bierhoff scored 37 goals for Germany and was a runner-up at the 2002 World Cup
Oliver Bierhoff, the former Germany striker who now works as Germany’s team director, said: “I think the games may become a bit more flexible and a coach of a smaller team at the World Cup can now react based on the data. It may also change roles. You expect a head coach to know everything from fitness to tactics and skills. Nowadays he is more a leader, a coach working with experts.”
This tournament is set to be the fastest World Cup in history...5G
Russia has become the latest country to make use of a major sporting competition to trial 5G technology, following on from South Korea’s implementation of the innovation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Theoretically 5G is far faster than anything that has come before it.
The Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg has been fitted with high-definition cameras that will beam coverage of the games back to Moscow via a 5G connection. Fans will have the opportunity to watch the 5G-broadcast games in VR, with the added ability to change the camera angle.
5G will supposedly work more than 100 times faster than 4G, downloading videos in a matter of seconds. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the technology’s use at this World Cup is how the rapid service that it provides impacts as major a city as Moscow.
When a ball being round is no longer enough...Adidas Telstar 18
The ball for this year’s tournament has been named in tribute to Adidas’ iconic 1970 World Cup ball, which was the first to have a black and white chequered pattern in order to allow viewers without colour television to differentiate between the ball and the pitch itself.
Unlike its namesake, however, the new ball is fitted with a near-field communication (NFC) chip. Officially (at least), the technology offered by the chip is not overly exciting and does not provide information on ball flight or speed that Adidas’ miCoach ball presents.
Instead, the NFC chip can connect to any Android or iOS device, allowing fans to interact with the ball to receive digital World Cup content as well as the chance to enter competitions.
The Adidas Telstar 18 was designed to pay homage to Adidas' first World Cup ball
For those who just can't wait until the final...Machine Learning
Fox Sports has utilised artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in order to produce what it is calling a World Cup Highlights Machine. Thanks to a collaboration with IBM’s Watson technology, Fox has delved through the World Cup archives to put together a package of on and off-field highlights from 50 years of action from the tournament. Given the enormous scope of the competition, such a project would have been implausible with manual labour.
Goldman Sachs have also used machine learning, but for a very different purpose. The firm put together 200,000 models based on team and player attributes using machine learning, before simulating one million variations of the tournament’s results in order to calculate the probability of each country winning it.
According to the Goldman data, Brazil are expected to beat Germany 1.70 to 1.41 in the final, securing a sixth World Cup title for the South Americans. France’s chances are actually rated better than those of the Germans, but are scheduled to meet Brazil in the semi-finals, sealing their exit. Spain, Argentina and England are all forecasted to lose in the quarter-finals.
Neymar's goal sealed a tense and crucial 2-0 victory over Costa Rica
It's always Germany leading the way...Performance analysis
German-based multinational software corporation SAP joined forces with the German Football Federation (DFB) before the World Cup in order to put together a digital package capable of improving Germany’s chances of retaining their 2014 title. SAP and DFB co-innovated a video cockpit and player dashboard, which allows the national team to access advantageous data.
The cockpit is a content hub comprising footage of training sessions, as well as match information. The system means that DFB analysts can identify patterns and potential weaknesses within opposition sides, as well as providing players with the data in real time.
The software is the latest in a string of innovations by SAP Sports One, a solution that helps sports teams and organisations digitalise performance management by coordinating all administrative, training and team management, scouting and medical processes.
Stefan Ries, SAP executive board member, said: “[The German national team is] among the first to recognise that data and real-time insights can have a powerful impact on the field of play.”
Toni Kroos' last minute goal against Sweden kept alive Germany's chances of retaining their World Cup title