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.
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.
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
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 -
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
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.
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