The Science of Superior Football Vision at the FIFA World Cup

Ross EdgleyFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2014

NATAL, BRAZIL - JUNE 24:  Andrea Pirlo of Italy looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Italy and Uruguay at Estadio das Dunas on June 24, 2014 in Natal, Brazil.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

All great players seem to be gifted with an innate ability to read the game better than anyone else—effortlessly finding open space while making passes without so much as a glance. Science teaches us it comes from a combination of exceptional peripheral vision and superior perceptual intelligence to read the game, and nowhere is this more evident than at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

But is this something that can be taught or are certain players born with it? Is it just luck when certain players find themselves in acres of space or is it scientifically proven to be a skill? Some argue players like 35-year-old Andrea Pirlo get better with age, yet Cristiano Ronaldo was able to dismantle a strong USA side with only one healthy leg and extraordinary footballing vision at 29.

Here we analyse the objective scientific evidence from the sports laboratory and combine it with real life case studies from the 2014 FIFA World Cup so far.

Firstly, although Italy were unable to make it out of the group stages, few people would argue with the immense contribution of Andrea Pirlo. However, it has to be noted that his contribution didn’t come in the form of miles covered or sprints made. In fact, it was quite the opposite. According to FIFA’s official statistics, Pirlo was the slowest player on the pitch against England in Manaus. What’s worse, his top speed of 20.2km/h was even surpassed by both goalkeepers: Joe Hart clocked 24.05km/h and Salvatore Sirigu reached 20.63km/h.

If being slower than your goalkeeper isn’t bad enough, how about managing only five sprints in total during the entire match. That was by far the fewest of any outfield player, even England’s Adam Lallana managed six sprints and he only played 15 minutes.

So where did this immense contribution come from?

They say a picture speaks a thousand words but this particular Vine of Pirlo’s dummy against England equally does quite a good job of illustrating my point.

Pirlo’s mental advantage is directly related to the fact he is more accurate and faster in his decision-making process on the pitch. Research published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology supports this theory, as they set out to determine the difference in perceptual strategies and response adequacy in experts and novices.

What they discovered was experts, compared to novices, “tend to reduce visual search time and select more meaningful information.” So, put simply, Pirlo’s dummy that led to Italy’s first goal of the tournament transpired because the entire England team spent that split second too long analysing too many visual cues.

While it was a stroke of genius, based on this theory, if Joe Hart had selected “more meaningful information," he would have seen Claudio Marchisio lurking behind Pirlo and maybe positioned himself better to save the first goal.

The next example of perceptual intelligence comes in the form of the controversial Luis Suarez. He missed the first group fixture against Costa Rica due to a knee injury, as reported in the Telegraph, but he single-handedly dismantled England in their second group game by simply reading the game better than anyone else.

In the 85th minute, while the England defence stood still, Suarez anticipated the ball would come off Steven Gerrard’s head and fall into his path to give him the chance to score Uruguay’s second goal.  

While many may consider this goal a stroke of luck, sports scientists from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University claim this was no accident. They reviewed key components of perceptual skill in footballers and identified that the more skilled players can “recall and recognize patterns of play more effectively than their less skilled counterparts.”

What this means is that Suarez has a unique ability to encode, retrieve and recognise sport-specific information from long-term memory structures to anticipate the game better than anyone else. The researchers added:

Experts essentially use their knowledge of situational probabilities to anticipate future events. They have a better than average idea of what is likely to happen given a particular set of circumstances.

Put more simply, based on this evidence, Suarez knew that ball was coming off Gerrard’s head before the English defence, and as a result started his run early to put a second goal past Hart and England out of the World Cup.

The final 2014 World Cup case study comes in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, who reportedly played against USA with one healthy leg, according to Fox Sports. But this didn’t stop him using his expert spatial awareness to dance around the American midfield like this.

Interestingly, it is the research published in a Military Psychology Journal that makes sense of Ronaldo’s ability to glide past tackles one by one. It states:

In military and sports tasks, individuals are often required to perform in a complex and dynamic environment and obtain a tactical advantage over an opponent even when only partial or incomplete information is available. Successful performance in both domains is typically dependent upon the ability to work both independently and as a team in an effective manner by combining perceptual, cognitive, motor, and social skills, often under stressful circumstances.

Again, put more simply, Ronaldo was able to avoid three tackles from various directions in a very short space of time by displaying outstanding perceptual, cognitive and motor skills while under pressure. According to the research, a less skilled player would not have been able to cope with this amount of stimuli and would likely have lost the ball.

So, based on both the anecdotal evidence from the World Cup and the scientific evidence from both sports and military journals, it seems certain players will always have a distinct advantage over the opposition: For Pirlo, it was his superior perceptual intelligence; for Suarez, it was his ability to anticipate the game; and for Ronaldo, it’s his greater spatial awareness.

Furthermore, looking at Pirlo’s dummy and Suarez’s second goal, it’s clear that this form of footballing intelligence can change the game in an instant. Therefore, it’s quite possible that the team that wins the 2014 FIFA World Cup won’t be the quickest, the strongest or the most skilled, but they might be the most perceptually intelligent.