Can GPS make you a better football player?

BUENOS AIRES--Computer player analysis in football games was once the realm of professional teams. Now a group of Argentine entrepreneurs have developed a low-cost way to bring it to the masses. Do you want to know how well--or badly--you play?

BUENOS AIRES--As a decidedly mediocre football (soccer) player--a yanqui in football-mad Argentina--I can attest to all the problems that come with regularly finding oneself out of position in a game. Being to blame for an opposing player who scores easily comes to mind. As does having to run twice as much as good players just to get back where I was supposed to be in the first place. And then there's not being positioned to receive the easy scoring pass. Ah, the goals unscored...

And so, it was with both excitement and dread that I learned about DataFutbol, an Argentine technology start-up that is applying GPS to amateur football. Data downloaded from the company's new GPS device would show me where I was in relation to the other players at every moment in a game. That in turn could help me correct my many mistakes. But it would also demonstrate to me--and the rest of those using the product--how frighteningly bad I was on the pitch.

Early this year, DataFutbol's three young Argentine founders, Blas Rodríguez Irizar, Andrés Mechali and Andrés Lorek, along with investor/advisor Andrei Vazhnov, launched their company on a simple theory: soccer-inflamed Argentina needed a kind of Facebook for football, an online hub where people could schedule tournaments, record and track game results and stats, and jawbone at fellow players.

"I was inspired by the passion with which we live football games every weekend," said Rodríguez Irizar, 24, who plays on a team with his co-founders. "And by the fact that as players we didn't have access to services like those of the professional sports world, even in a minor way."

The website they launched prospered; it now has over 1,700 teams, 16,000 players, and 7,000 games. But its founders noticed a basic weakness. "The amount of statistics you have is limited," said Mechali, 24. "You have penalty cards, goals, games, but not much more than that."

One day, the founders were talking with an electrical engineer friend, Santiago Tonietti, about how pro teams gathered performance data via HD video and processed it on high-end computer systems. The problem with that system was that its price made it unattainable for most players, especially in a developing country like Argentina.

"It’s better—-you can see passes and so on-—but for amateur it’s impossible. You have to have a ton of cameras and its very expensive," Mechali said.

But Tonietti said that he thought he could design a cheap device--small enough to wear on your bicep in a velcro captain's band--that would use a GPS chip to constantly collect data about the position of a player wearing it within centimeters.

"We came up with the idea to develop a device like the ones that Nike, Garmin, and so on have for running, but for team sports like football," Mechali said.

After a game, the data would be uploaded via a USB cord and crunched by a program that overlays position and time data onto an image of the field in order to turn the data into a path. This would allow players to track their route, top and average speed, and distance traveled, which in turn would tell them a lot about their performance. And if everyone in a game were to wear one, they could reproduce the game later on a site like DataFutbol, watching the movements of each player as if it were a video.

"It's a system that lets you evaluate your sports performance via your movement patterns as well as those of your team and the opposing one," Rodríguez Irizar said. "We're trying to offer a large variety of data so that coaches can diagram their tactics and strategies with a range of data and models that lets them optimize their analysis."

DataFutbol Presentation on Vimeo

Based out of offices at Incubacen, a technology incubator at the University of Buenos Aires, the company founders and Tonietti produced two prototypes, which are currently being tested in games at outdoor fields in the area (because of the need for a direct line to a satellite, the devices only work outside). The company is finishing seven more as well as the software interface for players, and is currently a finalist for a 40,000 peso ($8,500) grant from Capital Semilla, an Argentine national government seed capital program. If they receive those funds, Mechali says, they plan to build a total of 100 and finish the software development by the end of the year. They're also aiming to create an in-ball unit to allow them to track the ball as well.

This idea of using a GPS-enabled device for football analysis is not unique, of course. Academic institutions like the University of the Basque Country and design firms like AGENT have stepped into the field. But DataFutbol's product is uniquely Argentine.

"I think it's natural that this product came out of a country like Argentina, where millions of people play amateur football every week, and many others passionately follow their team at the stadium or on television," Rodríguez Irizar said. "We truly are all coaches or players in our café conversations."

Besides the country's passion for football, what makes the the product so Argentine is its ingenious simplicity. Because of Argentina's relative poverty and instability, its designers and entrepreneurs are forced to improvise creative low-cost solutions to difficult problems, a mentality known as atalo con alambre, or "tie it with wire."

"In Argentina, there are very good ideas because there’s a lack of resources and the people have to use their imagination more," Mechali said.

In DataFutbol's case, that means using inexpensive off-the-shelf components to bring the product to the masses at a price of a little over $100. The plan is not to sell the devices, however, but to rent them for some 10 to 20 pesos ($2-4) per player per game and thereby collect reams of data. After football, the company looks to expand the device to other team sports, as well as running.

"The idea is to make it as cheap as possible," Mechali said. "We’d rather rent a unit 30 times than sell it once because we’d make the same money and have a lot more data."

A lot more data that, I fear, will show how poorly hacks like me can play.

Photos courtesy of DataFutbol.

Related: Q&A: Mario Sinnhofer on rethinking the soccer ball

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