A little man in a baseball cap, sitting high in his luxury crossover SUV, drives into the players' parking lot at FC Barcelona's closed training ground. Lionel Messi, the world's best footballer, is reporting for work.
We're used to seeing footballers in stadiums but, in fact, the place where they spend most of their working lives, their equivalent of the office, is the training ground. Barcelona's Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, named after the club's founder, sits at the western edge of town.
FC Barcelona vie with their eternal rivals Real Madrid for the unofficial title of the biggest football club on earth. "Barça", as they are known, have won the European Champions League five times, four of them since 2006.
Currently headed for a probable 26th Spanish title, they visit Real Madrid this weekend for the latest instalment of El Clásico, the most-watched club game in global football. In sport, Barcelona’s 190 million followers on social media are second only to Madrid.
Messi and his teammates stand atop a largely unseen support team of data and video analysts, doctors, nutritionists and more. Barça also employ specialists on stadiums and social outreach. In 2017, the club quietly launched the "Barcelona Innovation Hub", which is charged with helping to invent the future of football. The hub's staff think about everything in the game from beetroot juice to virtual reality.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu told me he considers the hub to be Barça's "most important" project. "The sportsmen of the future will perform much better than the ones now," he says.
Recently, Barça let me peek behind the curtain. On sun-drenched February days that made you feel it was unfair that anyone got to have stimulating work in Barcelona, I spoke to head coach Ernesto Valverde and to club directors, and spent hours talking to the hub's specialists (who the club would not let me quote by name).
We met in the bowels of the Camp Nou stadium, in the café of the adjoining ice rink and at the club’s medical centre. The officials didn’t tell me everything, but they told me a lot. They know that football cannot be “solved” with algorithms, and that no robot will ever match Messi’s genius; all they aspire to is to add something.
Big football clubs, never particularly forward-thinking, are getting smarter. Since TV money began flooding into the game from the early 1990s, the rewards for being more professional have kept rising.
Last October, Barcelona reported record annual revenues of €914 million, becoming the first club in any sport to breach the symbolic $1 billion barrier.
All top clubs now pay their players more than ever before and in return demand unprecedented dedication. The rock-star habits of pre-1990s footballers have almost died out, though it’s still not unheard of for a star player to light up in the dressing room after a match or have a couple of drinks in town.
Clubs increasingly use their growing funds and staff numbers to search for incremental gains, both on and off the field.
It’s impossible to know whether Barça’s Innovation Hub is trendsetting within football, because their rivals are secretive. “Other clubs are afraid of sharing what they know,” says Bartomeu, who (mostly) does want to share.
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a director of the football club Athletic Bilbao and a professor at the London School of Economics, says that in football data analytics, at least, "there is clear leadership by one club: Liverpool. They have a group of four or five PhDs in maths and physics, and they know football."
But Palacios-Huerta praises Barça for letting the hub’s specialists research freely. And Barcelona’s innovations may be wider-ranging than Liverpool’s.
The hub’s 16 staff are in touch with officials throughout Barça, spreading the best innovations around the club. But the hub is meant to be more than an internal tool. Bartomeu (56) says: “We have the best laboratory in the world – 2,500 men and women athletes from eight years old to 30, in different sports.”
Barça field men’s, women’s and children’s teams in sports from basketball to roller hockey. The start-ups or universities with which Barcelona is partnered can test their findings on athletes. Sometimes Barça’s staff help co-develop a product. If any of this work results in a breakthrough in, say, treating hamstring injuries, Barça’s athletes will benefit first.
After that, though, the club hopes to spread any new products throughout global sport. That’s partly out of a sense of social duty – Barça take their motto, Més que un club (Catalan for “More than a club”), seriously – and partly in the hope of revenues. If a company can market a product as “tested at FC Barcelona”, the club will charge royalties. And if the product is in sleep or nutrition, areas in which elite athletes and ordinary mortals have similar needs, revenues could be large.
Now Barça plans to launch investment funds, with initial outside capital of €125 million, to invest in tech and sports projects worldwide. The club are exchanging ideas less with their football rivals than with American sports franchises – from the San Francisco 49ers of gridiron football to basketball’s Golden State Warriors.
Marta Plana, the board member who oversees the hub, talks about Barça becoming "the Silicon Valley of sport". There's one big difference: the Valley's much-trumpeted cult of failure doesn't apply here. For Barcelona, two defeats in a row is a disaster. The club cannot let innovation impede performance today.
Nonetheless, Barça think longer term than most football clubs. The Catalan merchant families who traditionally staff the board, and most of the 145,000 members (socios), who jointly own the club, expect to stick around here their whole lives. They care about the footballers of the future.
The hard part of innovation isn’t having ideas, one club official told me; it’s implementing them. If Barça can do that, and Messi and his teammates benefit, that will change sport.
Small, slender and smiling, Ernesto Valverde seems too slight a figure to be coach of a giant club. Never a superstar player, he spent his coaching career at middling clubs, before moving here from Athletic Bilbao in 2017, aged 53. Now, his office overlooks Barça's first-team training ground, the Camp Tito Vilanova – named after one of his predecessors, who died of throat cancer in 2014.
Valverde’s office walls are almost bare except for the first-team schedule. There’s hardly a personal touch in the room. He understands that in this club – run by locals, where players often stay their whole careers – the first-team coach is a mere passer-by. Two days after we spoke, he renewed his contract until 2020, but that won’t mean much if he loses a few games.
Valverde and his team of data and video analysts spend much of their week analysing Barça’s next opponent. He told me how he transmits insights to his players – insofar as they need them.
The team’s basic playing style barely changes from match to match. They aim to play a passing game in the opponent’s half and to lose the ball in dangerous positions no more than six times a match, allowing the opposition about three threatening attacks. More than six, and Barça aren’t playing well.
The tactics for any particular match are only a crutch, says Valverde. “Even when a player is anarchic, what the tactic does is help him. I remember an American author who said that ‘when nothing works, the tactic helps you to find your place, gives you an order. When everything is working, that day it’s heaven and you forget about the tactics’.”
Before each match, Valverde tells his men where opposing players typically station themselves, which ones leave defensive gaps and in which phases of matches the opposition declines physically. Yet he attaches limited value to his own advice.
“The beginning of a game is always a surprise, because you don’t know what the rival has been preparing,” he says. “The other day against Athletic Club [Bilbao], for example, we were expecting some very high pressure and, in fact, it wasn’t that high. So, Christ, in the beginning we were a bit out of place.”
Once a match kicks off, Valverde is almost just an onlooker. He grins: “This is a game where the coach has less margin than any coach in another sport, because I’m shouting to the player over there, and he doesn’t hear me, and the one by my side doesn’t either. This is a continuous sport in which the coach has barely any influence, or at least much less than in basketball. We only have three substitutions, the game never stops [for time-outs]. So, football belongs to the players. For 45 minutes at a time, non-stop, the player takes his own decisions. I have to say that the great players analyse the game better than I do.”
Then he corrects himself: “Instead of analysing, I’d say they interpret play. It’s different. On the field, you can’t think, you must play.” Messi is an extreme case: he reserves the “first minutes” of each match for interpretation, says Valverde.
During that time, the player ignores the ball and takes a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defence, fixing each man’s position in his head. Valverde says: “Then, as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly where the rivals’ weaknesses are.”
Barça’s players demand highly specific advice. In Valverde’s words: “The player wants a solution.” For instance, twice in the past year, Messi has rolled a free kick under the opposition’s defensive wall into the net after staff had told him all the players in the wall would probably jump.
“This is not data,” cautions Valverde. “You just see in the video that it’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself.” But, he points out, opponents are studying Barcelona’s tendencies too: when Barça took a free kick against Real Madrid in February, Madrid’s defender Marcelo “lay down on the grass” to block any low shot.
Similarly, Barça’s keepers are briefed on opposing players’ shooting habits. “Our keepers’ trainer shows a video about what they do when alone in front of the goalkeeper – if this one always shoots to this or that side, or the other one prefers to shoot straight and very hard. Like [Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki] Williams the other day: he’s going to shoot very hard and the goalkeeper has to stand in front of him and hold on.”
Barcelona’s data analysts spend their lives looking for an edge for their team. They wade through pass completion rates, maximum sprint speeds and heatmaps of each player’s movements. Yet talk to them, and they express extreme scepticism about their own work. One told me he didn’t think he had ever helped Barça win a match. When pressed, he conceded: “0.01 per cent.”
Coaches made little difference either, he added. Valverde concurs: “Data are not decisive. Or perhaps they are not decisive yet.” But Barça are trying to peer into the future and imagine the day when data might be.
At least the analysts are learning which match data to discount. The first statistics that became widely available, from the 1990s, were the easiest ones to measure: number of passes, tackles, shots etc. These “event data” – measures of what a player does on the ball – are still often shown on TV.
However, the average player has the ball for only about two minutes a game. The main question of football may be how he positions himself in the other 88 minutes. Is he controlling crucial spaces and creating space for teammates? Like everything in football, all this is very open to interpretation, but a newer family of stats seems capable of shedding some light: tracking data.
Barça began using GPS to track their own players in training and matches nearly a decade ago, even before Europe's football association Uefa formally permitted the practice.
“This was revolutionary,” exults president Bartomeu. Now the club use a new system, Wimu, which the club co-developed with Spanish start-up RealTrack Systems. Wimu relies on wearable sensors to track players’ positions, speed, accelerations, recovery distance, heartbeat, force of collisions etc.
Attacking in football is about creating superiorities. These can be numerical (two of your players against one of theirs), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against an inferior opponent). Barça hope that tracking data can uncover ways to create superiorities.
For now, the club's analysts can barely help the players do that. On the contrary: the analysts learn about football by observing the most intelligent players. For instance, Barça's midfielder Sergio Busquets, the team's pivot, knows just how to draw an opponent towards him and then release a teammate into the space the man has left. No coach shouting instructions at him through an imaginary earpiece could advise him better.
How to identify intelligent footballers? A Barcelona official fantasises about one day tracking players’ brains. For now, though, the analysts suspect that the most intelligent players – Busquets, Andrés Iniesta or Messi – are those who almost always face the right way on the field.
Here, as in so many cases, the analysts haven't got beyond an intuition that Johan Cruyff, the Dutch father of Barcelona's football, had nearly 50 years ago. Cruyff played for Barça in the 1970s, coached the team from 1988 to 1996 and largely invented the passing game that the club still play. He could rhapsodise for hours about players who were "turned" the right way. He cared much less about a player's size and speed.
For now, the club’s analysts spend much of their time watching and cutting videos of opposing teams. Over the next decade, Barça expect this work to be automated. That will free up humans to devote their time to studying the clips to find the opponents’ weaknesses.
How do Barcelona recruit players? Valverde, the coach, says: “I know there are teams who have bought a player after looking closely at his data, but I’m still not convinced.
"Sure, we look at the data of a player we're interested in. For example, if we're going to buy Lenglet [the defender Clément Lenglet, signed from Sevilla for €35 million last summer], we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted." But, above all, says Valverde, the club ask people around the player about his psychology. "Because if a guy comes here with amazing data but he's [psychologically] a satellite . . . "
You might imagine that luring players to Barcelona is easy. After all, this famous club pays the highest salaries of any sports team on earth. The average annual salary in Barça's senior squad was €12.2 million last year (excluding endorsements and other extracurricular activity), according to Sporting Intelligence. Real Madrid were a distant second, and basketball club Oklahoma City Thunder third.
Club president Bartomeu adds a caveat: he says the performance component of pay at Barça is usually about 40 per cent – high for football. “Nobody comes here for the money,” he insists. “They know. They come here because they know they will enjoy playing football.”
But he adds: "Not all the players I wanted to sign have come to Barcelona. I have examples that I cannot say – very important players now playing at other clubs. We told them to come, they were excited but at the last moment they said, 'I can't sign because I will be on the bench.' We don't want them. Sometimes, they are not strong enough to say, 'Where do you want me to play? Xavi is playing, why do you want me? You want me to play in the Leo Messi position, I can't.'
“At the time [goalkeeper] Víctor Valdés was there, nobody wanted to come to Barcelona. Why? To sit on the bench? So that’s the big difficulty.”
For similar reasons, many players in Barcelona’s fabled academy, La Masía, move elsewhere as teenagers. Bartomeu sighs: “Sometimes they say, ‘What am I going to do here? [Am I going to be good enough] to put Busquets on the bench? I can’t.’?”
When a player earning about €10 million a year misses a fortnight’s football, it’s a disaster. Barça dream of foreseeing and avoiding every injury. Valverde says: “All players wear a chip that monitors the training sessions. We’d like to establish, through our data from training – the sprints, the speed they achieve etc - if we can predict stress, or injury.”
But the club will need to build up the knowledge base largely by themselves. Medicine currently has little to say about football injuries. That’s because elite footballers have unusual medical needs. Nearly a third of injuries in professional football are muscular, with hamstrings the most common culprit. General medical research hasn’t taken the issue very seriously, because an ordinary person who pulls a hamstring can still go to work.
And Barça cannot do much in-house research, because the club’s sample size of elite adult male footballers is only about 25. Other leading football clubs are unwilling to share their medical data. So Barça are now partnering – usually with scientists – in about 40 studies of muscle and tendon injuries.
The focus is on individualising each player's care. It's relatively easy to monitor each person's external load: how many games of what intensity has he played recently? Barça are now making progress on measuring the internal load: how is a player reacting psychologically, biomechanically and physiologically to that external load? The first-team doctor Ricard Pruna has researched whether a footballer's genetic profile might predict particular injuries.
Yet even when Barça’s doctors think they know what treatment a player needs, they still need to persuade him. Modern football clubs seek ever more control over their players, but modern players push back. An elite footballer today is like the head of a small business, who contracts his playing services to a club for two or three hours a day.
He often employs his own physiotherapist or strength coach, who may steer him towards the latest fashionable treatment (right now, ice baths). He may not tell the club what he’s doing. Barça aim to dissuade injured players from going private, so as to retain control of their treatment and protect them against potential quacks. That’s why, for instance, the club forked out for what it considers the best MRI machine on earth. The device can produce images of a single millimetre of muscle, showing exactly where a tear is.
Nutrition and sleep
Just before afternoon practice, Barça midfielder Busquets pops into the kitchen above the training ground for a spot of refuelling. Before training, that usually means fruit juice. After training (which can be in the morning or afternoon), the players typically sit down together to their main meal of the day. Anyone who prefers to go home is given food to take with him. Almost every player employs a personal chef, who consults closely with the team’s nutritionist and prepares his home meals according to her instructions.
In 2006, when Barça won the Champions League, a star player would bring foie gras into the changing-room, insisting it was good for him. That became unthinkable after the fanatical rookie coach Pep Guardiola took over in 2008 and made the players eat breakfast and lunch together every day.
Since Guardiola’s departure in 2012, some of his rules have survived but others have been relaxed. Barça increasingly tailors nutrition to each player’s individual needs. The club is also tracking how exertion depletes each player’s energy levels. Some players sweat more than others. Some burn more fat or more carbohydrates. Soon each player will get his own customised mineral drink at half-time.
Sports Nutrition for Football, a booklet co-authored by Barça medics and scientists from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, has trawled academic research for dietary recommendations for footballers. Cheeringly, caffeine turns out to improve physical, cognitive and technical performance (even including passing accuracy). The guide recommends tea or coffee at pre-training breakfast and caffeinated sports drinks (or gum) on matchdays.
Players are also encouraged to drink beetroot juice to boost nitrate levels (including two shots in the hours before kick-off) and “during busy competition schedule” to eat the equivalent of 100 tart cherries a day (which sounds rather like a challenge in a competitive eating championship).
These habits must be pushed not just by nutritionists but, above all, by the coach, who is the players’ “key influencer”, says the guide.
Together with commercial partners, Barça are also about to start measuring their players’ sleep quality and quantity, by making them wear night garments with sensors. Of course, it’s questionable whether all footballers would accept such an intrusion into their most private space.
Club officials would never say it but Barça sometimes appears to be evolving from Catalan-nationalist social club into a global entertainment business. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the plans for a giant new world-class stadium, which will be filled in large part by tourists with shopping bags.
By 2023, Barça plan to have built what they modestly call “the best sporting complex in the world, in the centre of a great city”. The Espai Barça (or Barça Space) will be a vast gateless plaza. At its heart will be the renovated Camp Nou, Europe’s biggest football stadium, expanded from 99,000 to 105,000 seats.
It will stand within an open “campus” amid a new indoor arena, club offices, restaurants, and a modernised Barça megastore and museum. Barça envisage the Espai (total budget: €630 million) as a state-of-the-art complex that will set the tone in global sport. The stadium already has 5G telecommunications and the Espai will probably have facilities for virtual reality.
The megastore – which Barça says already has the highest revenues per square metre of any Nike store on earth – will be upgraded from a kind of supermarket to something more like an Apple Store, offering experiences rather than products.
Barça's museum, which a club official says is the third most visited in Spain after the Prado and the Reina Sofia in Madrid, will become more than just an alibi for a stadium tour.
Above all, the renovations are aimed at keeping visitors on the site longer. That’s partly because Barcelona’s home crowd has globalised. A decade ago, almost all spectators were locals. Club members (socios) who skipped games would lend their seats to friends or neighbours. Locals often arrive after kick-off (20 per cent do at Barça’s Champions League matches) and leave before the final whistle.
But nowadays, socios can sell their tickets on Barça’s website. Most purchasers are tourists. Barcelona’s average home crowd of 78,000 can include up to 30,000 foreigners, many of them attending the only Barça game of their lives. They want to drink in every aspect of the experience. For now, though, there are few places at the ground for them to hang out and spend. After games, they migrate to tapas joints outside the stadium.
In the Espai Barça, fans will be able to hang out all day, even on non-matchdays – much like “tailgating” fans in American football, who sometimes arrive the day before a game to barbecue and drink beer. Sensors will track where in the Espai fans go and where they don’t, allowing Barça to keep tailoring the complex to their desires. (The motto inscribed above the gates of most next-generation stadiums might be, “Abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.”) Eventually, the club – and its commercial partners in everything from imaging to waste management – should be able to sell their freshly won stadium know-how to other infrastructure projects worldwide.
In a video, a rail-thin 13-year-old boy sits smiling in a hospital bed. Pol's dream is to visit Barça's stadium, but he can't. However, from his bed he controls a robot that is walking around the Camp Nou, taking him there virtually. Barcelona's former player Eric Abidal, now the club's director of football, stands on the holy turf talking to Pol through the robot's screen.
At the end of the video, Abidal – himself an improbable survivor of liver cancer – walks into the hospital room and hugs Pol. The boy’s mother watches transfixed from the bedside. Pol died weeks after the video was recorded. But he has given his name to Robot Pol, a tool for hospital-bound children and millions of other Barça fans around the world who will never visit the stadium.
The Més que un club slogan can sound like smug rhetoric, except that most of Barça’s officials actually believe it. Social impact is part of the club’s mission, and it informs the work of the Innovation Hub as well as the charitable FC Barcelona Foundation. Marta Plana hopes that one day Barça’s findings on sleep and nutrition will help the general population, and not just Messi & co. She says: “As a society, you’re going to perform at your very best as well.”
But of course, if the projects work out, there will be royalties to be earned too. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019