HOW TECHNOLOGY RESTORED BRAZIL AS WORLD CHAMPIONS IN SOCCER
*This post orginally appeared on zacglover.com on November 21, 2017
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Brazil?’
Chances are its soccer (or football — depending on where you’re from). The two have become synonymous.
You probably envision the iconic kit: the blue shorts, the yellow shirt with the green trim. It is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, and rightfully so. The jersey means something. Not only to the players who wear it, or the people of the country it represents, but to everyone who sees it. It represents ‘o jogo bonito’ (the beautiful game). It represents greatness.
The country, aptly nicknamed ‘Futebol Nation’, has built this reputation through decades of dominance.
5 FIFA World Cup titles: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002.
20 tournament participations.
70 tournament wins.
All of which rank 1st all-time, respectively.
The legacy has been built on the backs (or should I say on the feet?) of some of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen. From one generation to the next, Brazilian footballers have passed down the torch: from Garrincha to Pelé and Zico, from Romário to Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
In 2014, it was time for the next in line to carry out the legacy.
The heir apparent was Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, the flashy forward from São Paulo. The stage was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It was the first time that the country was hosting the world cup since 1950. The 1950 World Cup saw Brazil come up just short in the championship game, losing 2–1 to Uruguay in what is known as one of the biggest upsets in football history.
However, this time would be different — or so it seemed.
Brazil advanced past the group phase after Neymar led his team to victories against Croatia and Cameroon, and a tie with Mexico. In the round of 16, he then scored the decisive goal in penalties to lift Brazil over Chile after both teams finished regulation tied 1–1. Things continued to roll in the quarter final. Neymar had Brazil holding onto a 2–1 lead against Colombia with just 3 minutes remaining.
Things looked optimistic. The team was minutes away from advancing to the semifinal round, held home-field advantage and needed only 2 more wins to claim the World Cup title. 64 years after the loss to Uruguay at Maracanã, Brazil looked poised to pick up its first ever world cup title on home soil.
And then, everything changed…
Just a minute later, Neymar moved toward an airborne pass. As he waited to corral the ball, a Colombian defender ran in at full speed to challenge the ball and collided with his back. Neymar immediately fell. He laid on the pitch, screaming in agony. The medical staff came out and carted him off the field on a stretcher. He was taken to a hospital in Fortaleza and diagnosed with a fractured vertebra. The injury would force him to miss the remainder of the tournament.
The team advanced to face Germany in the semifinal round but suddenly the host country’s odds no longer looked promising.
On a clear afternoon in Belo Horizonte on July 8th, 2014, a Neymar-less Brazil squad marched into Estadio Mineirao to battle against Germany for the right to keep their World Cup dreams alive.
It is what would happen next that would be permanently etched into the minds of every Brazilian soccer fan.
From the opening until the final whistle, Germany showed no mercy for the undermanned Brazilians.
Germany penetrated the defense, moving effortlessly around the Brazilian unit. They attacked from all angles, firing off shots from both short and long range. They connected with their target.
4 goals! In just 6 minutes.
Germany would add one more shortly after.
At the intermission, Germany held a commanding 5–0 lead. Brazil was dejected.
The second half was more of the same. Germany continued the onslaught.
German Substitute Andre Schuerrle added two more goals to bring the tally up to 7–0.
In the 90th minute, Brazil finally mounted a counterattack, scoring their lone goal in the game. However, it was too little, too late.
Germany was ruthless in handing Brazil one of the most devastating defeats in history and ending the host country’s tournament far differently than they wished. Instead of hoisting the World Cup trophy in front of their fans at home, they finished 4th in the tournament, with the record book rewritten at their expense.
The shocking and heartbreaking loss would become known as the Mineiraço.
The Mineiraço marked more than just the death of Brazil’s World Cup dreams; It marked the death of the collective consciousness of the Brazilian sports community.
“The 2014 World Cup made the lag of football in Brazil evident. Some people still believed that street football skills and our trophy record were enough to keep Brazil in the football spotlight,” said Robson Motta, Brazilian sports tech entrepreneur.
The Mineiraço served as a reminder that pure talent alone would no longer be enough to maintain this once-proud country’s place as the premier football country in the world. It was going to take something more. Brazil turned to tech.
Seemingly overnight, the culture shifted. In the ashes of defeat, a sports tech community was born.
“It was a good thing that the [Mineiraço] happened. Only a catastrophic event could cause a real change in our football culture. The word of order became “renovation” and it was being heard from supporters to players, from journalists to managers. From that moment on, planning and technology were the main addressed topics, as shown in the transformation that Coach Tite has been making [with the Brazilian national football team] in those two fields,” said Motta.
Brazil began taking a more cerebral approach to performance. The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) embraced technology in an effort to prevent another ‘Mineiraço.’ Brazilian football clubs followed suit.
“Regarding the clubs, there was an increase in investment in technology and the creation of performance analysis departments, which was not common until then. There was also an appreciation of modern coaches, who valorize the use of data and that share the responsibilities with their staff. All of it has been seen even in smaller clubs, which proves even more the benefit that the World Cup tragedy has brought to our football,” said Motta.
To meet the modern demands of football, the CBF signed Australian-based sports technology company Catapult as their official technology partner.
The partnership with Catapult equipped the national team with high performance wearable technology to allow the technical staff to monitor and analyze training sessions, and make objective adjustments to improve player performance.
The technology diffused throughout the soccer community.
Many clubs from Brazil’s premier soccer league the Campeonato Brasileiro — which is responsible for much of the talent on the national team — began using the Catapult system.
It became a regular sight to turn on the TV and see pros wearing the black catapult vest in post-game interviews and during practices.
The tech craze continued with some of Brazil’s most notable clubs striking deals to adopt other existing and emerging technologies.
Atlético Paranaense signed a multi-year deal with EXOS, to receive performance training support and personalized game plans for players.
Corinthians implemented TOTVS, an ERP software to help improve decision making, financial management and club administration.
Palmeiras began using Kineo, a training and rehab machine to differentiate the activities of muscular work.
Botafogo partnered with IoT company TagFit to make their home venue the first smart stadium in Brazil.
Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular pro sports team, with over 32.5 million fans worldwide, launched a high-tech performance center (CEP FLA) to raise the level of the physical preparation of the football team.
Many of these technologies were imported from other countries where the tech had been validated and the model already proven, but native companies benefited too.
In 2015, a ‘Catapult Sports of Brazil’ had even emerged. One Sports, a sports analytics startup, quickly gained traction. One Sports has worked with over 50 sports clubs and 1,000 athletes in Brazil, including the Brazilian Olympic Committee and the Brazilian Futsal Confederation.
There’s also TacticalPad, a gaming animation software company. TacticalPad boasts a long client list that includes both the Men’s and Women’s Olympic soccer teams along with roughly 80% of series A and series B Brazilian pro clubs. The widely-used software began enabling these teams to do things previously unavailable to them, such as: tactical analysis, draw exercises and drills, plan training sessions, performance and opponents analysis.
The technological revolution that was occurring in Brazil married the creativity and spontaneity of ‘o jogo bonito’ with the precision and objectivity of tech and analytics.
It wouldn’t be long before the Brazilian National soccer team could show the world just how far they had come since their traumatic world cup defeat.
Just two years after the Mineiraço, Brazil was offered a shot at redemption in the 2016 Olympics. In what can only be described as an act of divine intervention, Brazil found itself playing in the final against the same country that handed them their most humiliating defeat in history — Germany.
From the opening whistle, the game was noticeably different than the one that occurred 2 years earlier. Brazil played a more fluid, organized game. Although the Germans threatened early on with a shot off the crossbar in the 11th minute, Brazil did not relent to the pressure.
Brazil kept the German attack contained. However, Germany was not able to do the same.
In the 26th minute, Neymar converted a free-kick from 25 yards away to give Brazil the early lead.
It would be the lone goal in the first half.
In the second half, Germany got on the board in the 59th minute on a 12-yard shot off a cross.
The two sides continued to jockey back and forth for control of the game over the final 30 minutes but neither side was able to score the go-ahead goal.
The game was headed to extra time.
Both teams were quiet during extra time, unable to mount much of a scoring threat.
In the first period of extra time, it was Germany with the near score. In the 97th minute, Germany put a shot on goal from the center of the box but it sailed just over the bar.
In the second period of extra time, Brazil threatened. Neymar sent a through ball to a breaking Felipe Anderson. Anderson received the pass and got his right foot on the ball to send it toward the goal for the game clinching shot. Germany’s goalkeeper charged at the attack and made a play on the ball, sliding to save the goal and Germany’s chance at a gold medal.
Neither team could put together a scoring play so extra time remained scoreless. The game had to be settled on penalties.
Germany was first to shoot.
Germany converted their first 4 penalty kicks.
Brazil followed up each goal with one of their own.
With penalties tied at 4 a piece, the game came down to each team’s final shot.
First up was Nils Peterson for Germany. Peterson put a right-footed shot into the bottom right corner. Brazil goalkeeper Weverton dove to his left and denied Germany’s final penalty shot. The save gave Neymar the opportunity to write his own chapter in history. Should he convert this final penalty kick, he would earn Brazil its first ever Olympic gold medal in men’s soccer.
Neymar approached the ball, stutter stepped, and then shot the ball with his right foot.
Germany’s goalkeeper dove left.
Neymar’s shot went high and to the right.
The ball sailed into the back of the net.
“Gooaaaaal!” the announcer shouted.
Neymar dropped to his knees, struggling to contain his emotions.
Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium erupted in joy as Brazil earned its first ever Olympic gold medal in men’s soccer.
It was as if someone was watching over the Brazilian soccer team on that night, architecting the perfect ending to a story that began 2 years earlier, 280 miles North of Rio de Janeiro in Belo Horizonte — and sure enough, there was.
Perched up high above Maracanã Stadium, at the summit of Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Rainforest was Chris the Redeemer. He was watching over the Brazil men’s national football team with his arms stretched all the way out, seemingly to the stadium, where it appeared he played a hand in Brazil’s unforgettable victory.