Thursday’s World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia will be played out in front of an estimated 900 million television viewers but right bang in the middle of it will be Blackrock man Barry Hamilton.
The 23-year-old graduated from Loughborough University in 2013 before taking up employment with STATSports, a local business set up six years earlier by Sean O’Connor and Alan Clarke which has gone on to become the world’s leading sports science company in the field of performance monitoring and analysis.
Twelve months on, the Geraldines GAA star is now representing STATSports as part of the Croatia backroom team preparing for the World Cup finals in Brazil, working day to day with world class talent such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and Barcelona bound Ivan Rakitic.
It takes months, sometimes years of planning to get ready for a World Cup. Barry, though, had less than 24 hours notice. He takes up the story from the team’s base camp, north of Salvador, five days before the football festival begins.
“I suppose it was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” he explained when I asked how the opportunity arose to go to the World Cup.
“The Croats were looking to get a demonstration of our STATSports Viper tracking system before the World Cup so Sean and Alan decided that I should go to their 10-day training base in Zagreb and Austria. I flew out on May 20.”
The STATSports Viper system measures things such as a player’s heart rate, the distance covered in a game or training session, weight loss and sweat loss. With heat and humidity a major factor at this World Cup, the system is essential to measure a player’s performance.
“The players and the manager, Niko Kovac, really liked the system and I got on well with everybody but I was due to come home on June 1,” said Barry. “I never expected to be going to the World Cup at all.”
Barry took in Croatia’s 2-1 friendly win over Mali in Osijek and had his bags already packed for the flight back to Dublin the next day. However, those plans were soon to change.
“After the game the players held a meeting and the captain, Darijo Srna, stood up and told me to give him my passport as I was going to Brazil with the squad. The players liked the system and the technology so much that they were adamant they wanted to bring it to the World Cup. The next morning I was on a plane to Lisbon with the team, heading for the tournament.”
A couple of hasty phone calls were made back to Ireland to inform family and friends that he may not return home until early July, depending on Croatia’s progress.
The sports science graduate dismissed any notions that he is in South America for a holiday. Images of carnivals on sun drenched beaches come to mind when Brazil is mentioned but Barry said his schedule was very demanding as the Croats build up for Thursday’s opener.
Speaking the morning after their final warm up game against Australia, a 1-0 win courtesy of a goal from Hull City’s Nikica Jelavić, he described his working day.
“The players were able to use the STATSports Viper system in the game last night and they were out for a recovery session this morning,” he explained.
“That means I have had to monitor things and compile reports for the manager and the fitness coaches. Thankfully Niko (Kovac) is a coach who is really interested in the Viper system and the benefits the technology brings. That makes my life a lot easier. Sometimes managers are reluctant to buy into the sports science area of the game but Niko and the back room staff are really on board which is great.
“I only had three hours sleep last night and I haven’t seen a bit of sunshine to be honest. It might sound glamourous but there’s a lot of pressure on and it’s very demanding. Things are getting much more intense as we are just days away from the World Cup so it’s essential that nobody picks up an injury.”
STATSports have a client list that includes club teams such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus and international sides such as Republic of Ireland, England, USA, Northern Ireland, Wales and Poland. Despite that, Barry admits it can still be a bit daunting working with players such as Modric and Mandzukic on a day to day basis.
“It is a bit surreal,” he laughed, “but you have to try and be as professional as you can and you can’t lose sight of the fact that you’re there to do a job. You just shake their hands and treat them like you would any other person but you do get moments afterwards where you’re thinking, ‘that was a Champions League winner I was working with today’.
“I’ve obviously got to know them a little bit better and they are really nice guys. The mood in the camp is great and hopefully they can go on and do their country proud.”
Barry is expected to take his seat on the Croatia bench for the opening ceremony and game against Brazil and he is looking forward to a day that will live long in his memory.
“There are not too many people in my position, working a dream job that has taken them to the World Cup.
“I’m really looking forward to it and I really appreciate where I am. It will be an an experience I’m sure I’ll never forget and hopefully some of the people back home will be cheering Croatia on.
“Nobody expects anything other than a Brazil win but the lads are confident they can cause an upset.”