National soccer teams competing in the same confederation are typically rivals: the U.S. and Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands. When five African sides qualified for this summer’s World Cup, however, there was unprecedented amity and collaboration.
After Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Senegal had all secured bids for the World Cup in Russia, the Confederation of African Football equipped each national team with its own set of FieldWiz GPS trackers and organized a seminar on practical and theoretical usage of the devices.
“What I found really, really interesting is the way they are working together in order to improve the football of the whole continent and not only each country,” said Julien Moix, CEO of Advanced Sport Instrument, which makes FieldWiz.
Moix said that Dr. Yacine Zerguini—the vice president of CAF’s medical committee and a member of FIFA’s medical committee—led the push to give GPS trackers to each team. CAF also made plans to distribute FieldWiz to each of the 49 other national federations on the continent. FieldWiz counts a couple of French Ligue 1 clients but mostly targets lower soccer tiers, seeking to “democratize” wearable technology.
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“The idea is really to bring a collaboration between the clubs on how to use the technology or how to interpret the data and how to get the most of those data,” Moix said. “Mostly because, compared to other countries where they have a huge staff for analytics, there it’s at the beginning, and it will be more powerful if they work together in order to close the gap.”
Training session photos posted to social media show all five sides wearing FieldWiz at various times over the past few months. (Although Egypt switched to Catapult’s PlayerTek product in May.) Moix said many of the players already used other GPS devices with their clubs, but there was “little experience” with the technology at the national team level.
None of the five African nations in the World Cup reached the knockout stage, but Senegal, Nigeria, and Tunisia all notched victories. Senegal also had a draw but failed to advance despite identical results to Japan. The tie between the two was broken only by comparing the number of yellow cards each had been given, and the western African nation had six to the Asian team’s four.
At the FieldWiz workshop back in late January, Moix and a colleague demoed their technology to medical teams and coaches who were in Morocco for the African Nations Championship. Morocco’s Under-19 team played an intrasquad scrimmage wearing the devices to create a sample data set.
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Morocco assistant coach Patrice Beaumelle said in a recap of the seminar on the CAF website that this was “a very important kit for us” for its medical, physical, and tactical uses. Egypt’s team doctor, Dr. Mohamed Aboela, added, “On the medical side, this kit is interesting. It allows the doctors to follow the players and the evolution of their state of health. It’s a good thing and it will enable us to progress in Africa through the usage of technology.”
Speaking in early February before a session of the CAF general assembly that was attended by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, CAF president Ahmad Ahmad said, “We have decided to provide the five qualifying African teams for the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup with a sophisticated high technology equipment called FieldWiz, capable of giving simultaneous information on the physical and medical health of a player during training or during a match.
“I considered that this high grade equipment should also be used everywhere on the African continent. CAF has thus decided to extend this measure to all of our national associations. This is an action with a consequent cost, but CAF did not hesitate, for medical follow-up and prompt intervention on the health of a player is non-negotiable.”
In the coming months, ASI will soon be releasing a new version of FieldWiz with upgraded software, a lighter GPS pod, and the ability to monitor heart rate. (Currently, FieldWiz is compatible with other heart-rate monitors such as Zephyr and Mio Global and inputs data from those devices.)
No African country has yet reached a World Cup semifinal, and only three times has one made the quarterfinals—Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002), and Ghana (2010). The 2018 World Cup was the first since 1982 in which no African team survived the group stage.
BBC Sport spoke to former World Cup players like Radhi Jaidi of Tunisia and Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast ahead of this year’s tournament. Among the reasons they gave for why Africa has struggled with that sort of success was a lack of organization and infrastructure. Adding additional sport science technology and a collaborative spirit can only help.