Why technology may suck the life out of the World Cup

For most of the world, the World Cup is the biggest sporting event ever made. This time, technology will play an even bigger role, and it may not be a good one.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
A from-behind view of two men sitting on a couch and watching a soccer match on an LG NanoCell 80 Series TV.

The celestial forces are exerting themselves in twisted directions this year.

No, I'm not talking about mercury being in retrograde. 

I'm not talking about full moons making you howl.

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I'm talking about the World Cup being held in wintertime, beginning Nov. 20.

The one that actually crowns a world champion

The football World Cup. The soccer World Cup. The World Cup that matters to more people in the world than any other sporting event. The World Cup that, unlike American sports, actually crowns a world champion.

The World Cup that's always held in our summertime, when the national seasons are over and players have had time to rest.

It's a vast nonsense this time, with money chiseling at its heart. Qatar was chosen as the host country because, well, I'm sure you can get there from here. 

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It's not as if FIFA, the sport's governing body, has often had an unblemished reputation. It seems, for example, not to care about some of the host nation's more contentious laws. 

Why, a Qatari World Cup ambassador recently mused that homosexuality -- illegal in Qatar -- represents "damage in the mind."

And journalists from Denmark and the US have already been harassed for what seem to be normal activities, like taking a photograph in a public place.

But still everyone will watch. Well, most people.

For many, though, the World Cup is their only regular contact with football. (May I still call it football?)

They get into the whole, month-long event. They choose countries and players they adore, even if their own countries haven't qualified. (So sorry, Italy. You play such dull football.)

Not VAR-y Good?

This, though, will be the World Cup where technology is likely to become an (even more) irritating, exasperating and, ultimately, dominating specter. Despite it all being, as so often appears with technology, garlanded with good intentions.

It's not just that players are being evaluated, schooled, dictated to, and even chosen, according to some deeply considered data program. It's that some of the most important decisions will be in the hands of technology. Or rather, the human interpretation of what technology serves up.

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Penalty or no penalty? Goal or no goal? Or, as it's more often referred to by dedicated football fans, life or death.

The essential technological creation that'll become many people's object of love or hate is called VAR. The Video Assistant Referee. It made its World Cup debut in 2018, when the event was held in, oh, Russia.

Now, though, VAR's presence in club football has become pervasive, invasive and, to many, positively offensive.

Should you not be familiar with this technology, it beams images of the game to a so-called Video Assistant Referee, seated in a closed room with friends, but no ostensible beer.

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The VAR referee looks to see whether there's something grievous the on-field referee may have missed. The technology also uses clever lines to analyze whether a player is offside.

At any moment, the VAR referee can ask the on-field referee to stop the game, jog over to a screen near the touchline, and observe a particular play in extreme slow motion from perhaps several different angles.

Here's the problem. When you look at something in extreme slow motion -- especially one human being kicking another -- it can seem far more dramatic and extreme that it did in real life, when a player got vaguely touched, yet rolled around in performative agony.

The desperate diktat of data

We're used to something vaguely similar in US sports. All (the important ones) now allow coaches to challenge calls made on the field by referring to video evidence.

The problem with VAR, though -- and many in business may say it's the problem of all data -- is the pretense of objectivity.

The technology actively affects referee's behavior. If the video referee asks the referee on the pitch to review a play, the latter referee knows he's expected to overturn his decision. 

Hey, look at the data. Don't you think there might be a little handball in there?

What's never relayed, however, is the actual conversation with the referee -- unlike in sports like cricket and rugby. Instead, the referee stares at the screen and gives his verdict with hand signals, which can often incite many fans to offer hand signals of their own.

Did he really stand on his foot? Or was someone acting here?

TV viewers subsequently get to see what the video referees got to see. Even then, they're outraged at some of the ludicrous interpretations of objective evidence.

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Oh, and about those offside lines. FIFA announced it'll be using semi-automated offside technology "to help them [referees] make faster, more accurate and more reproducible offside decisions on the biggest stage of all."

Justice by (kinda) robot. We should all prepare for it.

It's a good thing. Or is it?

I'm being too negative, I know. I care too much about soccer, I know. I also know that VAR allows for actual injustices -- against my team, of course -- often to be reversed.

Here's another technological positive. The semi-automated offside technology will have a sensor in the middle of the ball, to give a more precise idea of when the ball was kicked when judging for offside. (Should you be unaware, or just not care, the offside rule is all about when the ball is kicked. If an attacking player only has a single opposing player in front of him at that moment, the attacking player is offside.)

VAR is that rare attempt to get technology to deliver justice. Or a little more justice. It's just that it doesn't always work that way and many coaches now decry how it gets used.

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Why, famed Italian coach Antonio Conte recently claimed he didn't "see honesty" in a VAR decision against his team. Famed German coach Jurgen Klopp once accused the video referee of "hiding behind" his on-field counterpart.

I know I shouldn't be afraid. I'm already used to VAR. I know I should be grateful that technology is so clever.

But there's repression at its heart.

Many players won't even be able to celebrate properly when they score, as they'll still be waiting for VAR to say the goal should stand. Fans will have screamed, only for their screams to perhaps be for naught as the technology delivers a na-na-nana-na.

Some human spontaneity is lost, in favor of hoped-for accuracy. (Does that remind you of work?)

Somehow, I always preferred hating the refs rather than cursing a machine.

But then I stop and consider a little more. I can still hate the ref who's manning the machine. And there's a bonus. I can also hate the referee who then stares at the screen and makes the wrong decision.

And anyway, repressed feelings will surely be the signature symbol of this World Cup, won't they?

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