Football is ostensibly a game where eleven fully grown, semi-dressed men kick an inflated leather sack around a patch of grass until they collapse in an exhausted heap. It's puerile, dangerous and, some would argue, ultimately pointless. But try telling that to the millions of football fans that have gathered in Germany to witness the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
A tech nation
Crave was amongst the writhing, bouncing, singing, screaming throng, and though we were there mainly to watch the England v Sweden game, we couldn't help but notice the tournament's heavy reliance on technology. It's hardly surprising -- Germany's Chancellor refers to the country, and Bavaria in particular, as the land of laptops and lederhosen. And who could disagree? Germany is second only to the USA and UK for the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots, but as for shorts with integrated suspenders, there were plenty to be seen at the opening ceremony, but we didn't see any in Cologne.
One of the obvious buzzwords of the tournament was HDTV. Every morning, afternoon and evening, fans from all nations would gather over a Hefe Weiss beer and an assortment of German meats to tell stories of how their awesome hi-def-enabled TVs and projectors back home helped them cheer their teams to glory or miserable defeat.
And it's the Germans that are making it all possible. German company Host Broadcast Services has been capturing the action in full 16:9 HD with eight-channel audio from 25 cameras and 30 microphones dotted around the 12 stadiums involved in the tournament. Once recorded, the video and audio is spewed to the International Broadcast Centre master control in Munich by Deutsche Telekom's T-Systems Media&Broadcast using enough acronyms to make a dyslexic person break out in a cold sweat: LAN, ISDN, Wi-Fi, ADSL, EDGE, HSDPA and UMTS are all in use here.
But forget HDTV -- other technologies were in much greater demand by the average person on the streets, most notably those much sought-after, tech-enabled World Cup match tickets.
All 3.2 million tickets are made of thick card and are laced with computer chips capable of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). These RFID chips emit a signal containing holder information such as name, address and date of birth and are read by RFID scanners at stadium entry points. Scanned tickets are checked against a database to help detect forgeries and work with stadium security cameras capable of detecting biometric information, in this case facial features, to help identify football thugs.
According to representatives from Toshiba (the folks who took us along to the England v Sweden match), the system didn't work perfectly all of the time. Some fans were wrongly denied entrance to the stadium, but were okay as they had carried their passports as a means of identification. Crave got inside without a hitch, but all that technology didn't stop a crack squad of pretty girls visually inspecting the tickets of those going to and from the toilets or concession stands inside the stadium.
Camera Phone Frenzy
Once the game had kicked off, the flash-bulbs of 45,000 digital cameras provided staccato illumination of Stadion Köln. Everything from VGA camera phones to digital SLRs were in evidence, but it was SMS text messaging that stole the tech show. When England striker Michael Owen collapsed in a heap, we were all baffled as to what was wrong with him, but fans were able to get text updates about his condition from friends back home.
Word on the specifics of his injury spread around the ground within minutes, although what seemed to start as 'his knee is in a bad situation' came back as 'he needs an amputation', so there's clearly room for improvement.
Teching it easy
But it's not all nerd news. We took great delight in sampling as many of the football festivities as our short time in the country would allow, including singing ourselves hoarse alongside a mob of fans of all nationalities, though most of them (predictably) were English.
Among our favourite chants were "I'd rather be a carrot than a Swede", (aimed at England's opponents in the match); "5-1 and even Heskey scored" (aimed at our German hosts, who we thrashed in 2002), and "There's mustard on the ball" (which broke out when a hungry fan's Bratwurst got in the way of a friendly 30,000-player game of keepy-uppys). Some of that action took place on the Deutz bank bank of the Rhine river, as pictured above.
Whichever way you look at it, the 2006 World Cup is a monster of a tournament, both in a sporting sense and a technological one. We can't wait for the day when technology plays a greater role in helping referees make correct decisions, but in the meantime we've got plenty to be happy about. Game on! -Rory Reid