I was watching some fan captured goal footage, something I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit I do frequently, when it struck me how recent a facility this is to be able to draw on. The phones that make the recording of this material so easy and the popular video streaming website I was viewing did not exist a decade and a half ago. Even then to get video from a phone to a website (or anywhere else) would have been a pain before the advent of the smartphone in 2007. This realisation sent me tumbling headlong into a thought experiment about technology and football. Which technological advance has had the biggest impact on the game? The large: jets flying teams on tours around the world. The small: micro-surgery to repair the bodies of the athletes that play. Or the multitudinous: a video-capable camera phone in every fan’s pocket.
The first trap I had to avoid was failing to see past the most recent mobile and digital categories. The smartphones most of us carry are extraordinary tools but neither they nor the on-line platforms they connect us to are the be all and end all. While social media may connect fans with speed and across distances never dreamed of before their arrival, it was the launch of live satellite broadcasting nearly five decades earlier that helped spread the love of football.
Further back, predating the already mentioned jet-age, international teams travelled to the first World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay by ship. Football, of course, does not require an integrated transport network and billions of dollars-worth of communications technology to work, when you get right down to it all you really need is a ball and a rectangle painted on a wall, or ‘Jumpers for goalposts’ – as a great man once said.
An easily overlooked piece of tech you will still find in a park amateur league game is the referee’s whistle. Prior to their use, grown men would take out and wave handkerchiefs to stop games and call back action – and we worry about due respect to match officials in our time!
The ball of course is a requirement in football but have the technological updates to this device really made such a difference? In some ways we must hope so. The leather cannonballs of the post war era are long gone and it would be better for all of us if the troubling higher-than-average rate of brain deterioration later in life for professional players went with them. Time will tell on that one. I remember playing with flyaway printed orange spheres only slightly heavier than balloons. One good kick and the wind was as likely to pick it up and carry it into the street as yours truly celebrate a goal.
And so if not the ball what? What is more fundamental to the game and what improvements to it have advanced football most? The answer – is not the ‘ball’ but the ‘foot’ or to be precise the underside of the boot; the grip. Studs, dimpled soles or blades, it is impossible to progress as a player beyond kick-about level without a little stickiness. Whether taking a penalty or trying to pull off a Cruyff turn you need that grip. Without it, I doubt any one would be filming football on their phone and I certainly wouldn’t be watching it.