Can science save football? Boffins believe they can make the beautiful game more beautiful

An article by Peter Hughes in The Oxford Times

AS 33,000 Oxford United fans packed the stands at Wembley this month, many were praying for victory.

But a football-mad Oxford scientist has suggested that loving the beautiful game is more of a science than a religion.

Science Oxford’s creative director Quentin Cooper joined a panel of footie-loving celebrity scientists to debate how scientific improvements could make the beautiful game even more beautiful.

In a talk called “Can Science Save Football?” at The Old Fire Station on March 31, the experts discussed corruption, injustice and big money in football, revealing how a scientific approach could make things better.

Mr Cooper, a veteran science journalist and Manchester City fan, was joined by Oxford University Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus du Sautoy, Radio 4 science presenter Jim Al-Khalili, University of Reading zoologist Joanna Bagniewska and University of Cambridge statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter.

The panel discussed putting microchips into players’ kit to track who last touched the ball, using smart phones for better crowd safety, and generating data to inform fairness in the game.

Mr Cooper, who lives in Princes Risborough, said: “Fans love to moan, but if we have a problem let’s think about how we can solve it: that’s what science does.

“So the question is: can we apply a bit of mind power to make the game fairer?”

Mr Cooper said the goal of science to make the world a better place could be just as productive on the football pitch as in a laboratory trying to cure cancer or send astronauts to Mars.

He added: “There’s lots of football fans out there who feel like the game has fallen a bit into disarray.

“Science is trying to make the world a better place and solve problems, so maybe a scientific approach can help.

“The weird thing is that some people say they’re not interested in science, but whatever they are into there will be an element of science to it.

“Whether it’s football, knitting, gardening or whatever, I defy you to come up with any subject that doesn’t have a scientific element.

“People think they don’t like science, but secretly they do.”

Mr Cooper insisted that many scientists like him shared a love of football and sports as well as their professional pursuits.

He added: “That’s not the public perception of science, but we’re people too. We may be very logical about our research but we can still be potty about football.

“I’ve been to a game with Marcus du Sautoy – he’s not just sitting there thinking about numbers, he’s up and shouting in the stands.

“Lots of scientists are very passionate about the game.”