With the football World Cup in Qatar upon us, I was reflecting on how new technologies and other drivers of change might impact on how the game is refereed and how tournaments - such as the World Cup Finals - are managed, and the criteria for host bids considered. And could there be competition to what has become known as “the beautiful game”?
So to consider the future of the World Cup, I have created a brief scenario to explore some of the changes we might see.
The 2038 World Cup
There’s been a big shake up at FIFA in both how the host nation of the World Cup Finals is selected and how the games are refereed.
As a result of a root and branch review, in large part motivated by increasing pressure from EUFA – including the threat of a break away governing body – the cost of poor decision-making on the pitch, and the increasing importance of both being, and being seen to be sustainable have driven FIFA to embrace the opportunities presented by technology. As a result, the governing body has introduced far-reaching changes to how host nations are selected for each four-yearly tournament.
There were many examples cited of unjust decisions in World Cups behind the decision to embrace technology, including Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” for England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup Finals and Thierry Henry’s deliberate handball in the build up to William Gallas’s second goal for France in the 2009 qualifier against Ireland for the 2010 World Cup.
And the increasing prominence of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in developing balanced sustainability across environmental, social, and economic domains was also a driver of significant change for FIFA, just like it was for other global and local organisations.
So how did these change drivers impact the organisation of football and specifically the World Cup?
Just like in Rugby Union and Test Cricket, football is now a two-tier sport. The two critical assessments for who is in Tier 1 and who is in Tier 2 are based on results-based ranking and the ability to implement the approved technology solutions for in-play decisions. Tier 1 nations, and their top leagues and divisions, are able to invest in the infrastructure required to meet the need for Automated in-Play Decision-Making; the new AiPDM system.
FIFA’s World Cup Host Nation Selection Process
After the issues surrounding the organisation of a mid-season World Cup Finals tournament in Qatar in 2022, the continent-wide staging of the 2026 tournament in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., the introduction of the two-tier structure, and historical fall out from accusations of corruption in the host nation application process, the process to select a host nation is very different and much more transparent.
Successful host bids will only be accepted from single countries and each will have to show acceptance of, and evidence of the nation working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Only a Tier 1 nation can host the tournament. A host nation will also have existing stadia and transport infrastructure to avoid the impact of harmful emissions of new construction projects.
The tournament finals will be contested by just 24 teams to minimise travelling for competing teams and supporters. The majority of tickets will only be made available to supporters living in the host country – to minimise the emissions from international travel – although a scheme by which sections of stadia are organised to admit virtual fans from around the world is in place. Supporters from outside the host country can still be present, albeit virtually. Represented by animatronic supporters, each fan’s chosen face can be projected onto the artificial supporter’s face, through which your voice can also be heard as part of the crowd. Extended reality devices allow the “at home fan” to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and physical presence of the live stadium experience.
Although these provisions limit the number of countries able to host tournaments, a greater proportion of the income from FIFA tournaments is made available to developing the game in developing – mostly Tier 2 - countries.
At long last, and a long time after former FIFA President Sepp Blatter changed tack over the use of goal-line technology, FIFA has fully embraced the potential presented by new technologies to help ensure the right decisions are always made in high profile games. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), sensors, computer visioning, and edge computing (where data is analysed at the point of collection and not on a distant cloud based server) have been particularly critical in creating what many now consider, a fool-proof decision-making system.
Enabled by AI, sensors (in the ball and woven into players’ shirts), computer visioning, and edge computing, the ball being in or out of play, who got the last touch of the ball so the decision goes the right way, the ball crossing the goal line, and offside are fully automated through AiPDM.
Foul tackles and simulation are assessed as a result of deploying ML, sensors, computer visioning, and edge computing. And automated timing tracks stoppages in play and adjusts active game time accordingly, signalling the referee to blow for half and full time.
The referee and assistant referees’ roles are different. Their primary functions are to communicate automated decisions to the players on the pitch, manage the safety of players - head injury protocols, for example - and act as a mediator for flash points between players and the team’s coaching staff and substitutes.
It proved to be a battle with the traditionalists, but even they had to concede, the most important objective is to make the right decision at the right time, and instantly.
A Challenge to the FIFA World Cup?
But there’s a question about how resilient and future ready, is the FIFA World Cup, because there’s a new kid on the block – the International Robot Football Association – IRFA - and the Robo-World Cup
This competition started as an exhibition series but has turned into a major sports event in its own right, with major streaming coverage and the opportunity for immersive spectator experiences.
Described by some as the merger of Formula 1 and association football, it’s a global event with qualification to the Robo-World Cup Finals via regional leagues. The finals take place two weeks after the final of THE World Cup, to keep hold of the coat tails of the more illustrious and traditional event, but also to showcase just how competitive and entertaining the robo-version is.
Teams apply for a franchise from the IRFA and are a mixture of works – manufacturer - teams, independent – research - teams, and nationally funded teams from around the world, most notably from; China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Korea, Turkey, UK, and USA.
This version of association football is more physical now that humans won’t be hurt. The algorithms designed for and used in the robot players are regulated by ever evolving IRFA rules but there is lots of latitude in the design for aggression, skill, positioning, in-game tactics, and strategy set pre-match. There are also parameters that apply to robot player sizes, weight, and processing capacity.
The spectator experience was designed to be different from the off. For the robo-world cup, the crowd is fully virtual, with tickets allowing spectators to “occupy” spectator bots in the stadium, with optional full immersive experiences through supporters’ extended reality devices.
It’s football, but not quite as we know it. And it raises the question of other sports; how will cricket, rugby union, American football, and baseball evolve into the future? What role will technology play in how the sports are managed, played, refereed, and how will the spectator experience change?