(CNN) — Widely considered rank outsiders for Russia 2018, Australia’s national football team has had to get smart in its bid to level the playing field at the World Cup.
Australia isn’t a nation blessed with an array of world-class footballing talent and its best players are scattered around the globe, making it difficult to keep track of their fitness. So Dr. Craig Duncan — one of Australia’s leading sports scientists — has turned to technology in an attempt to level the playing field.
According to Duncan, the introduction of the Apple Watch, which allows him to keep tabs almost instantaneously on all those players, has been “critical” in learning more about the members of the Australian squad.
But, not content with the system they currently have on hand, his team will soon look to take their tech a step further.
“We’re about to use a more cutting-edge technology where pretty much 24/7 we can monitor the players seamlessly,” Duncan told CNN Sport.
“Just from them wearing a wearable and keeping track of what’s going on, so data flying up to the cloud and us seeing it.
“You’ve got to get quite resourceful when you’ve got so much distance between your players.”
884 days, 22 countries, 250,000 kilometers
In his current role as the Socceroos’ leading sports scientist, Duncan has been credited with revamping the national team’s fitness regime, culminating in a first Asian Cup win in 2015.
But while looking to the future, Duncan also has an eye on the past and finds inspiration in the words of some of history’s great philosophers, often posting their thoughts on his Instagram feed.
Seneca’s musing that “it’s a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness” is a sentiment that certainly rings true with the Socceroos.
By the time Australia had secured their place at Russia 2018, becoming the 31st of 32 teams to do so, they had played more matches — 22 — than any other side in World Cup qualification history.
Their celebrations — complete with fireworks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge — after finally beating Honduras were joyous but weary. The players had come through a grueling, energy-sapping campaign.
Qualification had taken more than two years, 884 days to be precise, and saw them visit 22 different countries, traveling more than 250,000 kilometers in the process.
Many players will have traveled further, making return trips from Europe to Australia during most international windows. All of this on the back of intense seasons with their clubs.
And it was Duncan’s efforts that kept the players in top condition, both physically and mentally, as they traveled across multiple time zones, often to hot, humid climes.
“Asia is a difficult qualification series because of the distances, the change in climate and change in cultures that you have to go through,” he told CNN Sport.
“We didn’t go straight through and then had to play Syria twice and travel all the way to Honduras, so from a sports science perspective it’s a fun one.
“You have a lot of obstacles and you have to find a lot of solutions so you become very experienced in travel fatigue and managing that, particularly when you have players coming from different climatic zones and time zones.”
Duncan’s aim now is to ensure the squad arrives in Russia in peak physical condition.
To do this, he and just one other colleague — Fabian Ehrmann — are in contact with a core group of 50 Australian players spread around the globe every day.
Using a bespoke mobile app, the players log in and input data as soon as they wake up and following every training session.
Having worked in club football before switching to the international game, Duncan understands how important it is to develop good relationships between club and country.
“I’m very respectful that these players come from clubs and I don’t want to step on their toes,” he says. “This whole game is about relationships.
“You always want to get them back to their clubs in pretty good condition. I’m a believer that during international weeks we borrow those players that are very important to clubs.
“I know what it was like when I was at clubs, players would go to international football and it was like ‘oh God’ and they hate it, they hate it because they don’t want a player to get injured.
“They’re trying to avoid relegation or trying to win a championship and their player is off with us. I want them to really know that we’re looking after them as well as we possibly can.
“We actually give reports back on a daily basis to clubs whilst the players are with us, rather than just at the end of the time they’re with us. So they can implement it into their systems and not lose touch with what’s going on with each individual player.”
The Apple Watch has revolutionized the way Duncan keeps track of his players, allowing him to monitor them — almost to the minute — while they are sleeping and training.
This allows Duncan and Ehrmann to know exactly what condition the players are in when they arrive in camp for international duty, how they need to recover and whether they’re match ready.
Though Duncan is humble and regularly plays down his work as “not rocket science,” his job was made considerably more complicated by the unexpected resignation of head coach Ange Postecoglou following Australia’s qualification.
“It was an interesting situation,” Duncan laughed.
He said the new coach, experienced Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk, and his team have been receptive to his pre-World Cup preparation plans, which have remained largely unchanged.
The squad traveled to Turkey for a pre-World Cup camp, while the Australian federation has retained the chef it contracted while in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, a man whose services Duncan values highly.
“We fly him everywhere we are and he’s just the best,” he says. “He’s just fantastic, I’d take him anywhere because he’s just great.
“He puts what we want into practice and he’s also got a great understanding of the hygiene aspects. We try and avoid any issues that can be associated with food.”
Such is Duncan’s meticulous approach to ensuring the fitness of his players, he will even make sure the right mattresses are ordered and delivered to Russia to allow them the best possible night’s sleep, one of the most crucial aspects for recovery.
‘Age is overrated’
But while Australia suffered an unexpected last-minute change of manager, there is one thing that always seems to remain constant in the national team: Tim Cahill’s presence.
Despite now being 38 years old and playing just 63 minutes from 10 substitute appearances in the past six months, the veteran forward is set to appear in his fourth World Cup.
Returning to Millwall, the second-tier club where Cahill first made his name in England, was supposed to provide fitness and game time ahead of Russia.
But the fairytale comeback soon turned into a nightmare, with Cahill’s time in Southeast London ending with a three-match ban for violent conduct.
However, such is Cahill’s incredible natural fitness and dedication to his health, Duncan — who believes Cahill is the fittest veteran he’s ever coached — is still confident he will arrive at the World Cup in perfect condition.
“I actually think age is overrated,” Duncan explained. “There is a negative factor, but if you do manage yourself well, do everything correctly and have good advice, then you can play for longer.
“There are some physiological attributes that do decline with age but I always stress to players ‘your career is short’ so even from when they first become a professional, do everything right.
“I’ve done a lot of work with Tim, he obviously has good genetics that get him through but he does work very hard, he has probably the best psychological state in respect to football, the way he is, the belief he has in himself, the belief in what he can do.
“Just before he went to Millwall, I was working with him here and he looked better than when I first came into contact with him back in 2014.”
Despite Cahill’s impeccable health regime, Duncan believes there is still an untapped level of physical fitness soccer players can reach.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the (full) potential of a football player.”
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