How FC Barcelona is preparing for the future of football • ft.com

A small man in a baseball cap, sitting high in his luxurious crossover SUV, goes to the parking of the players on the closed training ground of FC Barcelona. Lionel Messibest footballer in the world comes to work.

We usually see footballers in stadiums but, in fact, the place where they spend most of their professional lives, their office equivalent, is the training ground. Barcelona's Ciutat Esportiva, Joan Gamper, named in honor of the club's founder, is located west of the city.

FC Barcelona rivals its eternal rivals real Madrid for the unofficial title of the biggest football club in the world. The "Barça", as they are called, has won the European Champions League five times, four of them since 2006.

Currently looking for a likely 26th Spanish title, they are heading to Real Madrid this weekend for the latest opus of El Clásico, the most watched football club game in the world. In sport, Barcelona's 190 million followers on social media are second only to Madrid.

The training complex of the club, the Joan Gamper Ciutat Esportiva © Ciro Frank Schiappa

Messi and his teammates are at the top of a largely invisible support team of data and video analysts, doctors, nutritionists and more. Barça also employs specialists in stadiums and social action. In 2017, the club quietly launched theBarcelona Innovation Center", Responsible for helping to invent the future of football. The hub team thinks of everything in the game, from beet juice to virtual reality.

Club President Josep Maria Bartomeu I said that he considered the hub as the "most important" project of Barça. "Athletes of the future will be much better than today's," he says.

Recently, Barça let me take a look behind the curtain. The sunny February days that made you feel that it was unfair that everyone had a stimulating job in Barcelona, ​​I talked to head coach Ernesto Valverde and club directors, and I spent hours talking to hub specialists (that the club would not let me quote by name).

We met in the bowels of the Camp Nou stadium, in the adjoining ice rink cafe and at the club's medical center. The officials did not tell me everything, but they told me a lot. They know that football can not be "solved" by algorithms and that no robot will ever live up to Messi's genius; all that they aspire for, is to add something.

The big football clubs, never very avant-garde, become more intelligent. Since television money started flowing into the game from the early 1990s, the rewards for being more professional have continued to increase. Last October, Barcelona announced Record annual turnover of 914 M € (1.039 billion USD), becoming the first club of all sports to cross the symbolic threshold of one billion dollars.

The hub is the "most important" project of Barça. "Athletes of the future will behave much better than those of today"

All major clubs are now paying their players more than ever before and demanding in return unprecedented dedication. The rock stars of footballers before the 1990s have almost disappeared, although it is still common for a prominent player to light up in the locker room after a game or drink a drink in town. But clubs are increasingly using their growing funds and membership to seek additional gains, both on and off the field.

It is impossible to know if Barça's pole of innovation is a reference in football, because its rivals are secret. "The other clubs are afraid to share what they know," says Bartomeu, who (mostly) wants to share.

Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, director of the Athletic Bilbao football club and a professor at the London School of Economics, said that at least, in football data analysis, the leadership of a club is clear: Liverpool. They have a group of four or five doctors in mathematics and physics, and they know football. But Palacios-Huerta congratulates Barca for letting the platform's specialists freely conduct research. And the innovations of Barcelona are perhaps larger than those of Liverpool.

The 16 staff members of the hub are in touch with the officials through Barça, broadcasting the best innovations around the club. But the hub is meant to be more than an internal tool. Bartomeu, 56, said: "We have the best laboratory in the world – 2,500 male and female athletes aged 8 to 30, in different sports."

Lionel Messi in action in Barcelona's 3-0 win over Real Madrid this week, earning them a place in the Copa del Rey final © Getty Images

Barça's men's, women's and children's teams play sports, from basketball to roller hockey. Start-ups or universities with which Barcelona is a partner can test their results on athletes. Sometimes Barça staff help co-develop a product. If any of this work leads to a breakthrough in the treatment of hamstring injuries, Barça athletes will benefit first.

After that, the club hopes to release new products in the global sport. This is partly due to social obligation – Barça's motto is As a club (Catalan for "More than a club"), Seriously – and partly in the hope of revenue. If a company can market a product "tested at FC Barcelona", the club will charge royalties. And if the product is dormant or in nutrition, areas in which elite athletes and mere mortals have similar needs, incomes could be significant.

Barça is now planning to launch investment funds, with an initial external capital of 125 million euros, to invest in technology and sports projects around the world. Clubs exchange fewer ideas with their football rivals than with US sports franchises, San Francisco football's 49ers at the Golden State Warriors basketball.

Marta Plana, a board member who oversees the hub, talks about Barça becoming "the Silicon Valley of Sport". There is a big difference: the largely unsavory cult of failure in the valley does not apply here. For Barcelona, ​​two consecutive defeats are a disaster. The club can not let innovation hurt performance today.

Nevertheless, Barça think in the longer term than most football clubs. Catalan merchant families who traditionally occupy the board of directors and most of the 145,000 members (socios), who are jointly owners of the club, expect to stay here all their lives. They care about the footballers of the future.

The difficult part of innovation is not to have ideas, says a club manager; he implements them. If Barça can do it and Messi and his teammates benefit, it will change the sport.

L & # 39; coach

Small, slender and smiling, Ernesto Valverde seems a too skinny character to coach a giant club. Never a superstar player, he spent his coaching career in mid-size clubs before leaving Athletic Bilbao in 2017, at the age of 53. His office now gives on the training ground of Barça's first team, Camp Tito Vilanova, named after one of his predecessors. died of throat cancer in 2014.

Ernesto Valverde, who succeeded the Barcelona head coach in May 2017. "It's a continuous sport in which the coach has virtually no influence. So football belongs to the players © Ciro Frank Schiappa

The walls of Valverde's offices are almost bare, except for the schedule of the first team. There is hardly a personal touch in the room. He understands that in this club – run by locals, where players often stay their entire career – the coach of the first team is a mere passerby. Two days after our conversation, he renewed his contract until 2020, but it will not have much effect if he loses some parts. Valverde and his team of data and video analysts spend much of their week analyzing Barça's next opponent. He told me how he passed on his ideas to his players – to the extent that they needed them.


The basic game style of the team hardly changes from match to match. They aim to play a passing game in the opposing half and lose the ball in dangerous positions no more than six times per game, allowing the opposition to make three threatening attacks. More than six years and Barça does not play well.

For 45 minutes at a time, without interruption, the player makes his own decisions. Great players analyze the game better than me

The tactic for a particular match is only a crutch, Valverde said. "Even when a player is anarchic, the tactic is to help him. I remember an American author who said, "When nothing works, tactics help you find your place, give you an order. When everything works, that day is heaven and we forget the tactics.

Before each match, Valverde tells his men where the opposing players are usually, who leave defensive holes and in which phase of the matches the opposition declines physically. Yet he gives only limited value to his own advice. "The start of a match is always a surprise, because we do not know what the rival has prepared. The other day against Athletic Club [Bilbao]for example, we were expecting very high pressures and, in fact, it was not that high. So, Christ, at first we were a little out of place.

Marta Plana, a member of the board of directors who oversees the innovation cluster, talks about the adoption of Barça as "the Silicon Valley of sport" © Ciro Frank Schiappa

Once the match begins, Valverde is almost a spectator. He smiles: "It's a game in which the coach has less margin than a coach in another sport, because I scream at the player who is there, and he does not hear me, and the one at side of me does not hear it either. . This is a continuous sport in which the coach has virtually no influence, or at least a lot less than in basketball: we only have three substitutions, the game never stops [for time-outs]. So football belongs to the players. For 45 minutes at a time, without interruption, the player makes his own decisions. I must say that the big players analyze the game better than me. "

Then he corrects himself: "Instead of analyzing, I would say that they interpret the game. It's different. You can not think, you have to play. Messi is an extreme case: he reserves the "first minutes" of each match for interpretation, says Valverde.

During this time, the player ignores the ball and makes a reconnaissance round around the opposing defense by fixing the position of each man in his head. Valverde said: "Then, as the game progresses, it goes in little by little. But he knows exactly where the weaknesses of his rivals are. "

Barcelona players, including Sergio Busquets (sixth from left) Lionel Messi (center) and Luis Suárez (third from right), on the training ground of the club's first team

Barça players require very specific advice. For Valverde, "the player wants a solution". For example, twice last year, Messi scored a free kick under the opposing defense wall after the team announced that all players on the wall would probably jump.

"It's not data," warns Valverde. "You see in the video that it's a pattern that's constantly repeating itself." But meanwhile, he points out, his opponents are also studying Barcelona's trends: when Barça kicked a free kick against Real Madrid in February, Madrid's defender Marcelo "lies on the sidelines." "Grass" to block any low blow.

Messi knows perfectly where are the weaknesses of his rivals

Similarly, Barça goalkeepers are informed of the shooting habits of the opposing players. "Our goalie's coach shows a video of what he's doing when he's alone in front of the goalie – if he's always shooting at that side, or if the other guy is going to shoot straight and hard . As [Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki] Williams the other day: he's going to shoot very hard and the goalkeeper has to stand in front of him and hold on. "

Correspondence data

Barcelona data analysts spend their lives looking for a benefit for their team. They scour the pass completion rates, maximum sprint speeds and heat maps of each player's moves. Yet, talk to them and express extreme skepticism about their own work. One of them told me that he did not think he had ever helped Barça to win a match. When in a hurry, he conceded: "0.01%."

Coaches made little difference either, he added. Valverde agrees: "The data is not decisive. Or maybe they are not decisive yet. "But Barca is trying to look at the future and imagine the day the data could be.

At least, analysts learn which data to correlate. The first statistics that became widely available from the 1990s were the easiest to measure: number of passes, tackles, shots, etc. These "event data" – measures of what a player does on the ball – are still often broadcast on television. . However, the average player only has the ball for about two minutes per game. Perhaps the main question of football is how he positions himself in the other 88 minutes. Does he control crucial spaces and create space for his team mates? Like everything in football, all this is very open to interpretation, but a new family of statistics seems capable of enlightening us: the monitoring of data.

Barça started using GPS to track their own players during training and matches almost ten years ago, before the European football association Uefa officially allowed it. "It was revolutionary," exults President Bartomeu. Now, the club is using a new system, Wimu, which it has developed jointly with the Spanish start-up RealTrack Systems. Wimu relies on portable sensors to track players' positions, speed, accelerations, recovery distance, heart rate, collision strength, and more.

Attack in football, it is create superiority. These can be digital (two of your players against one of their own), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against a lower opponent). Barça hopes that monitoring data will reveal ways to create superiority.

For the moment, club analysts can barely help players do it. On the contrary: analysts learn football by watching the most intelligent players. For example, Barça midfielder Sergio Busquets, the player swing, knows how to draw an opponent to him, then release one of his teammates in the space he has left him. No coach who would shout instructions through an imaginary listener could better advise him.

How to identify intelligent footballers? A Barcelona official dreams of one day looking for the brains of the players. For the moment, however, analysts suspect that the smartest players – Busquets, Andrés Iniesta or Messi – are the ones who almost always face the right path in the field.

Johan Cruyff plays for Barcelona in a UEFA Cup tie against Aston Villa in 1978 © Getty Images

Here, as in so many cases, analysts have not lost the intuition of Johan Cruyff, the Dutch father of football in Barcelona, ​​almost 50 years ago. Cruyff played for Barça in the 1970s, led the team from 1988 to 1996 and largely invented the passing game that the club still plays. He could talk for hours about players who had been "shot" in the right direction. He cared much less about the size and speed of a player.

For now, club analysts spend a lot of their time watching and shooting videos of opposing teams. Barça expects this work to be automated over the next decade. This will allow humans to spend their time studying clips to find the weaknesses of their opponents.

transfers

How does Barcelona recruit players? Valverde, the coach, said, "I know some teams have bought a player after looking closely at his data, but I'm still not convinced. Of course, we examine the data of a player who interests us.

"For example, if we are going to buy Lenglet [the defender Clément Lenglet, signed from Sevilla for €35m last summer], we look at his speed, his number of bullet recoveries, the attacks he interrupted. But above all, says Valverde, the club questions his entourage about his psychology. "Because if a guy comes here with amazing data but he [psychologically] a satellite. . . "

Josep Maria Bartomeu: "Nobody comes here for money. They come here because they know that they will love playing football © Ciro Frank Schiappa

You can imagine that it is easy to attract players to Barcelona. After all, this renowned club pays the highest salaries of any sports team on the planet. The average annual salary in the Barça senior team was £ 10.45m (€ 12.2m) last year (excluding endorsements and other extracurricular activities). ), according to Sporting Intelligence. Real Madrid is far behind, and the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball club is third.

The club's president, Bartomeu, adds a caveat: he says the performance component of Barça's pay is generally about 40% – high for football. "Nobody comes here for money," he insists. "They know, they come here because they know that they will love playing football."

All the players I wanted to sign did not come to Barcelona

But he adds: "All the players I wanted to hire did not come to Barcelona. I have examples that I can not say – very important players currently playing in other clubs. We told them to come, they were excited but at the last moment, they said, "I can not sign because I will be on the bench." We do not want them. Sometimes they are not strong enough to say, "Where do you want me to play? Xavi plays, why do you want me? You want me to play in Leo Messi's position, I can not. " [goalkeeper] Víctor Valdés was there, no one wanted to come to Barcelona. Why? Sit on the bench? So that's the big problem.

For similar reasons, many players from the legendary Barcelona Academy, La Masía, move elsewhere as teenagers. Bartomeu sighs, "Sometimes they say, 'What am I going to do here? [Am I going to be good enough] to put Busquets on the bench? I can not.

injuries

When a player who earns about 10 million euros a year misses two weeks of football, it's a disaster. Barca dreams of predicting and avoiding all injuries. Valverde said: "All players carry a chip that monitors workouts. We would like to establish, through our training data – the sprints, the speed they reach, and so on. – if we can predict stress, or injury. But the club will have to build a knowledge base largely by itself. Medicine currently has little to say about football injuries.

This is because elite footballers have unusual medical needs. Nearly one-third of injuries in professional football are muscular, with hamstrings being the main culprit. General medical research has not taken the issue very seriously because an ordinary person who pulls a hamstring can always get to work. And Barça can not do a lot of research internally, because the sample of elite male footballers has only 25 people. Other major football clubs refuse to share their medical data. Thus, Barça is now associated – usually with scientists – in about 40 studies on muscle and tendon injuries.

The emphasis is on individualizing the care of each player. It is relatively easy to monitor the external load of each person: how many games of what intensity has he played recently? Barça is now progressing in the measurement of the internal charge: how does a player react psychologically, biomechanically and physiologically to this external charge? The first team doctor, Ricard Pruna, investigated whether a footballer's genetic profile could predict specific injuries.

However, even when Barca's doctors think they know what treatment a player needs, they still need to convince him. Modern football clubs are increasingly looking to control their players, but modern players are retreating. An elite footballer is now leading a small business that passes player services to a club two or three hours a day. He often uses his own physiotherapist or strength coach, who can guide him to the latest fashionable treatments (currently, ice baths). He may not tell the club what he is doing. Barça's goal is to deter injured players from remaining private, in order to maintain control of their treatment and to protect them against possible quacks. That's why, for example, the club has disbursed what it considers to be the best MRI device in the world. The device can produce images of a single millimeter of muscle, showing exactly where a tear is located.

Nutrition and sleep

Just before the afternoon workouts, the Barça Busquets midfielder lands in the kitchen above the training ground for a full tank of gas. Before training, this usually means fruit juice. After training (which may be in the morning or afternoon), players usually sit together for the main meal of the day. All those who prefer to return home receive food to take away. Almost all players employ a personal chef, who closely consults the team nutritionist and prepares meals at home according to his instructions.

Barcelona's Ronaldinho faces two Arsenal players in the triumph of the Spanish team in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final © Getty Images

In 2006, when Barça won the Champions League, a star player brought foie gras into the locker room, claiming that it was good for him. This became unthinkable after rookie coach Pep Guardiola took charge in 2008 and forced players to have their breakfast and lunch together every day.

Since Guardiola left in 2012, some of his rules have survived but others have been relaxed. Barça adapts more and more nutrition to the needs of each player. The club also monitors how the effort exhausts the energy levels of each player. Some players sweat more than others. Some burn more fat or more carbohydrates. Soon, each player will receive his personalized mineral drink at halftime.

Sports nutrition for football, a pamphlet co-written by Barça doctors and scientists from the Gatorade Institute of Sport Sciences, has gone through academic research to obtain nutritional recommendations for footballers. With enthusiasm, caffeine improves physical, cognitive and technical performance (including pass accuracy). The guide recommends tea or coffee for breakfast before workout and sports drinks containing caffeine (or gum) on match days.

Players are also encouraged to drink beet juice to increase nitrate levels (including two shots in the hours preceding the kickoff) and "during busy racing hours" to eat the equivalent of 100 sour cherries a day (which rather looks like a challenge in competitive championship eating). These habits should be encouraged not only by the nutritionists, but especially by the coach, who is the main influence of the players, said the guide.

Together with its trading partners, Barça is also about to start measuring the quality and quantity of sleep for its players by wearing nightwear with sensors. Of course, one wonders if all footballers would accept such an intrusion into their most private space.

Stadium

Club officials would never say it, but Barça sometimes seems to evolve from a national-Catalan social club to a global entertainment company. This is nowhere more evident than in plans for a gigantic new world-class stadium, which will be largely filled with shopping bags by tourists.

The Champions League trophy at Camp Nou © Ciro Frank Schiappa

By 2023, Barça plans to build what it modestly calls "the best sports complex in the world, in the center of a big city". the Espai Barça (or Barça Space) will be a vast place without a door. Camp Nou, the biggest football stadium in Europe, will be renovated from 99,000 to 105,000 seats.

It will be located in a "campus" open between a new indoor arena, club offices, restaurants and a modernized Barça mega-museum and museum. Barça is considering the Espai (total budget: 630 million euros) as a state-of-the-art complex that will set the tone in world sport. The stadium already has 5G telecommunications and Espai will probably have facilities for virtual reality.

The megastore – which, according to Barca, already has the highest business figure in the world by Nike Store – will be upgraded to switch from a type of supermarket to a store resembling an Apple Store, offering experiences rather than products. The Barça Museum, which according to the club official is the third most visited in Spain after the Prado and Reina Sofia of Madrid, will become more than an alibi for a visit to the stadium.

The renovation works are primarily to keep visitors longer on the site. This is partly because of the globalization of the Barcelona crowd. A decade ago, almost all the spectators were locals. Club members (socios) who jumped matches lends their seats to friends or neighbors. Locals often arrive after the kickoff (20% at Barça Champions League matches) and leave before the final whistle.

But nowadays, socios can sell their tickets on the Barça website. Most buyers are tourists. Barcelona has an average of 78,000 spectators and can count up to 30,000 foreigners, many of whom attend the only Barça game of their lives. They want to drink in all aspects of the experience. For the moment, however, there are few places on the ground where they can spend time. After the matches, they migrate to the tapas joints outside the stadium.

At Espai Barça, fans will be able to meet all day long, even on game nights, as do football fans, who sometimes arrive the day before a match to barbecue and drink. beer. The detectors will track where Espai fans go and who they do not, allowing Barça to continue adapting the complex to their desires. (The motto over the doors of most new generation stadiums could be: "Give up any privacy, you who enter here.") Eventually, the club – and its business partners in all areas, will Waste management imagery – should be able to sell their newly acquired stadium know-how to other infrastructure projects around the world.

Social impact

In one video, a slim 13 year old boy sitting smiling in a hospital bed. Le rêve de Pol est de visiter le stade du Barça, mais il ne le peut pas. Cependant, depuis son lit, il contrôle un robot qui se promène dans le Camp Nou et l’emmène pratiquement là-bas. L’ancien joueur barcelonais Eric Abidal, maintenant directeur du football du club, est debout sur le sol sacré et parle à Pol à travers l’écran du robot. À la fin de la vidéo, Abidal – lui-même un improbable survivant d'un cancer du foie – se rend dans la chambre d'hôpital et serre Pol dans ses bras. La mère du garçon regarde fixement depuis le lit.

Pol est décédé plusieurs semaines après l'enregistrement de la vidéo. Mais il a donné son nom à Robot Pol, un outil destiné aux enfants hospitalisés et à des millions d'autres fans du Barça dans le monde entier qui ne se rendront jamais dans le stade.

the Més que un club slogan peut sembler être une rhétorique béat, sauf que la plupart des officiels du Barça le croient réellement. L’impact social fait partie de la mission du club et informe le travail du pôle Innovation ainsi que de la Fondation caritative FC Barcelona. Marta Plana espère qu’un jour les conclusions du Barça sur le sommeil et la nutrition aideront la population en général, et pas seulement Messi & co. Elle dit: "En tant que société, vous allez également jouer à votre meilleur niveau." Mais bien sûr, si les projets aboutissent, des redevances seront également gagnées.

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