Soccer and technological doping

The phrase “technological doping” has been hovering over sports -- all of them -- for some time now. More as a vague, ill-defined problem than a clearly identifiable threat.

It has taken several years for the problem to become measurable. Now -- so to speak -- the results are in. The problem has taken on a specific identity -- in the shape of Nike’s Vaporfly running shoes. The shoes are not exactly new -- they were introduced in 2016 -- but modifications in the design have produced shoes that -- according to an extensive New York Times survey of amateur races -- result in a measurable improvement in running times, particularly in long-distance events. Vaporfly users are now running 4 to 5 percent faster than they would do if using regular (i.e. non-Vaporfly) shoes. Nike makes the same claim -- a 4 percent improvement -- confident both of its product and that it is not doing anything illegal.

The results are impressive. Just three months ago Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, Vaporfly-shoed, became the first runner to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon. A one-off fluke? Hardly. The five fastest-ever marathons have all been run within the past two years  ... all of them by runners wearing Vaporfly shoes.

Are there soccer implications here? Not directly. Long-distance running is not considered a soccer attribute. But instant acceleration is. How long before we’re presented with a shoe possessing a credibly positive effect on that talent?

Maybe the day is near when some of the claims made (and, so far, not believable) that certain shoe brands can deliver harder and more accurate shooting. Might it be possible for harmless headgear (already permitted) to incorporate some wee clever device that ensures more powerful headers? To get really fanciful, could a smart-shoe be developed that keeps a player onside?

It does not do to underestimate the wizardry that technology can come up with. So it might be a good idea for soccer’s bigwigs -- I mean FIFA and IFAB -- to take a look at its own rules regarding player equipment. And to ponder any possible forms of technological doping that might be looming.

The sport’s Rule 4 deals with “Player’s Equipment.” The rule is, frankly, rather a mess. It specifies equipment that is mandatory (shirts, shorts, shoes, shinguards, etc), and equipment that is banned (no jewelry, or anything that might be dangerous). Then come the exceptions: Non-dangerous protective equipment (e.g. headgear, face masks, made of soft padded material), and sports spectacles.

But ... what about gloves? No mention. All goalkeepers wear gloves these days and many field players in northern Europe routinely wear gloves when required to play in bitingly cold weather. But the rules neither approve nor ban gloves. They are simply not mentioned.

Which is odd. Field players use gloves to keep their hands warm. One can assume that the same reason applies to goalkeepers wearing long pants -- but that practice is officially approved in Rule 4: “Goalkeepers may wear tracksuit bottoms.” But keepers do not wear gloves to keep warm. Keeper gloves double up as protective equipment and -- more controversially -- as performance-enhancing aids.

Which moves soccer firmly into the technological doping arena. Actually, soccer has been there for many years. For as long as I can remember, goalkeepers have been permitted to wear caps. This practice was widespread for decades. The caps were usually donned only late in afternoon games, as the sun was sinking, and served as anti-sun visors (in those days, stadium builders paid little attention to the desirability of using a north-south axis).

During all that period, there was no mention of caps in the rules. Caps are rarely seen these days. And now that they have virtually disappeared, the rulebook at last says they’re OK. Amazingly, the first use of the word “caps” came in the 2016 rules. A shining example of IFAB’s unfailing inability to respond to changing patterns and practices on the field.

Now, these caps were never protective equipment, nor were they required for medical reasons. Their role is simply to keep the sun out of the keeper’s eyes. If they are used, they are, have been for decades, blatant performance-enhancing aids.

There were always problems. A cap can fall off or be knocked off -- becoming a loose object that might interfere with play. The current rules make no mention of that possibility, which is admittedly unlikely. More seriously, why are goalkeepers, yet again, given an advantage that is unavailable to field players? I can see no justification for it -- other than the sport’s traditional pandering to defensive play.

There are clearly some issues already in the sport’s equipment rules that need to be spelled out. Gloves, for a start. Let the rules state clearly that non-dangerous gloves are permitted for all players (barring some heinous chicanery like using them to cover up brass knuckles, I suppose).

Caps? They should be banned. I cannot see any good reason why goalkeepers should be mollycoddled in this way. They will have to cope with a glaring sun, just as all the field players have to. Banning a practice which has largely fallen into disuse should not be too arduous a move for IFAB.

Once Rule 4, the equipment rule, has been cleared of these anomalies and oversights, IFAB can get ready to face tricky matters like whether it is OK to wear Vaporfly cleats (should there be such a thing). All the top teams have shoe sponsors, meaning that only those with a Nike contract would qualify as Vaporfly wearers. Is that unfair competition?

However quickly other manufacturers catch up with Nike, thereby leveling the playing field (theoretically, anyway), technological-doping looks like a problem that is surely going to land on soccer’s doorstep sooner or later.

8 comments about "Soccer and technological doping".
  1. :: SilverRey ::, February 2, 2020 at 12:08 p.m.

    If there is any issue it probably is greater with the gloves than caps. As in NFL the stickiness of gloves is increasing - NFL gloves now offer 20% more grip than bare hands. I don't know what keeper gloves offer, but every year they get stickier. The addition of spines on the back have been making their way on to lots of gloves these days as well.

    Who knows how much this impacts the game, but it has to take at least a few goals away every year.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, February 14, 2020 at 4:36 p.m.

    As for gk gloves having some sort of "stickiness" as most everyone knows, manufacturers from adidas to nike to rinat, etc., have been experimenting with all kinds of new material to enable the gk to grap the ball better and safer, and for "reinforcing" the fingers, IMHO, it is one of the better additions for a gk's safety, that of breaking fingers (being stepped on, or getting them bent backwards upon stopping or deflecting a hard shot, etc.)   However, it is the cost factor that the price of a "nice" to a high "professional model" pair of gk gloves can and does range from a low $100 to high of around $200-300 and even more for a custom-made pair.   

  3. R2 Dad, February 3, 2020 at 12:58 a.m.

    Boots might be edging into that realm as well:

  4. frank schoon, February 3, 2020 at 8:05 a.m.

    You have to be an idiot to believe these shoes are going to make you play better....It's not the shoe  
    ,but what you put into the shoe. Or the shoe will make you faster??? Faster in what?  Like Cruyff states, "it's not how fast you are or how slow you are, but that you're there on time. In other words, the first few meters is between your ears. US soccer has a surplus on speed and running, that's basically our game. We don't need speed but some brains and skills...too bad these shoes can't furnish those elements....

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, February 4, 2020 at 4:30 a.m.

    You alluded to my favorite Cruyff quote and basis for positional play:

    "Football is a sport that you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late."


  6. R2 Dad replied, February 6, 2020 at 6:25 p.m.

    Frank, The US is addicted to the concept of Free Lunch....

  7. Michael Saunders, February 6, 2020 at 12:15 p.m.

    SImilar to all sports Bob ........ "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."   

  8. Hugh McCracken, February 27, 2020 at 7:47 p.m.

    Put the head back on the soccer player! Don't just iconize the equipment. Not that equipment doesn't matter (although the improvements cited above are pretty small compared to the whole) versus the training, Paul. Having watched Mathews at 49 or so, I agree totally about the boots and the first ten yards, and maybe they will help there a bit.

    Technological improvements to players brains as they train are available via headsets, and through better training methods using live, in time verbal information from both players; and timely, prescient information from coaches, as well as post practice analysis via video with experienced developers. These all could need to be in the smaller game analyses with experienced coaches showing the patterns of play, and where the visual and other cues are.  It is correct that players can learn that the first ten yards can be in their heads--at younger ages, not in just older players. The technology can contribute to this learning.

    The ingredients to put into the brains of players with learning experiences are available through soccer awareness training a-la Cruyff, Harrison, Beale, Bruinicks (Belgium), and now in the correct application of fun, variablility in training games, and broad exposure to all aspects of the game early in playing in games.  The brain learns in everything by exposure to many different aspects of any subject intellectually, and this applies to soccer situational intellectuality. Correct patterns learned early in response to the asymetry of transition phases, of experience of all positions, of increasing exposure to the game under conditions that matter for players in need of development, and the toleration of failure, are all part of the picture needed as players progress through development. When what? There are loads of sources, including many books, courses, and curricula to guide. Look what has replaced the G, F, and E courses--much better at one level, although the live aspect may need to catch up.

    We should be considering Mentality and Tactics, Technique and Physicality, not the traditional order. That old order was plain wrong in emphasis, and was a headless approach that we are slowly recovering from, and it needs to be changed.

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