FLORENCE — The Italian national soccer team has landed in Brazil, and each player is carrying an extra card with them. It's similar to an ATM bank card, though instead of money it will give them access to a database where they can find any and all relevant information about the World Cup.
Manager Cesare Prandelli and his staff have set up profiles and videos about the team's opponents, schedules for games and training, information on the best positions to score a goal from a corner kick, and motivational speeches from the trainers. And it's all accessible via a small piece of plastic.
"In my day, we were given folders and leaflets, but now one card is enough," says Demetrio Albertini, a former midfielder for Milan who, as delegation head, has been working with the technical side of the team as well as with the players to prepare for the tournament.
This innovation gives a hint about the future of the soccer world's elite. And the Italian soccer federation developed yet another high-tech feature after the Euro 2012 experience — a special box where the climate of Brazil can be re-created. "We got to the final against Spain and the players were tired," says Albertini. "We don't want that to happen again."
After last year's Confederations Cup in Brazil, Prandelli realized the risks of the weather conditions. So the new device recreates the 35 ºC (95 ºF) heat and 70% humidity that the players will face in the tropical Manaus region of northern Brazil where they'll play their first games.
"Each player was closely studied for 20 minutes at a time," explains Giambattista Venturati, one of the athletic trainers on Prandelli's staff. "We were able to monitor four different things: taking their internal body temperatures, evaluating the physical perception, testing blood samples from their ears, and measuring their weight — taken both before and after the heat."
Measuring hearts and grass
Renzo Casellato, another trainer, says it's hard to predict how the players will ultimately react, and how much weight they'll lose, for example. "Everybody is different, but we have a very clear idea of what they'll lose in terms of salt and water," he says.
Sensors like these have become an essential tool to every coach heading to Brazil, more than anything to help prevent unforeseen illnesses and injuries. The players put the device onto their thighs for a TMG test which measures the contractile properties of muscles — that is, where they exert maximum force in as short a time as possible.
Other sensors designed with Milan's Polytechnic University help measure strength, and some trends in heart rate derived from general states of health, as well as the psychological aspect and motivation of the player at that moment.
There's also a GPS sensor that tracks the speed and precise movement of each athlete.
The team will have access to ice baths to combat fatigue and any minor injuries, plus a massive entourage that includes a chiropractor and nutritionist. Food is of the utmost importance to these athletes. At their pre-Brazil training camp in Florence, the team was separated into groups to make it easier to control what they ate and drank.
"We want to be able to predict the unexpected," Albertini says.
Well, here’s hoping Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo won't outsmart them, making all that technology useless. Skills like theirs aren't something science has figured out how to combat.