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
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
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.