“I have an idea that in football, you can’t lose the sense of ‘what is football’. I think that technology shows how innovative tools can improve the game. Technology will not decide winners or losers, but makes the game fairer.”
Luís Figo won football’s Ballon D’or award in 2000 — he was the second Portuguese player to win it, after Eusébio in 1965. Retired since 2009, Figo was a player renowned for his creativity and considered one of the greatest of his generation. And this year, he came to speak at #LEAP22.
Football and tech: What’s the connection?
Since stepping away from the pitch, Figo has focused his career on business investments and tech. In 2016 he co-founded an app called Dream Football, designed to help young players get seen by football clubs and scouts.
“It’s for the kids that dream one time or one moment to have the opportunity to achieve the professional level, or to be seen by a club,” Figo said.
Essentially, the app is a platform for aspirational young footballers to upload their skills. Then partnering clubs can see recommended players, assess them via the app, and invite the most promising players to come and try out with them. Figo sees it as a kind of tech-based democratisation of the scouting process, enabling young people to be seen even if they don’t have the social or geographical advantages to meet scouts IRL.
Tech is also becoming a key force in improving access to football opportunities for women. Did you know that in 1921 women’s football was banned by the English Football Association for 50 years? They said it was because “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” And in some areas of the world, the fight to legalise women’s football is still ongoing. In Saudi Arabia, a positive change was announced in 2021 — the Saudi Arabian Football Federation plans to launch the country’s first women’s football league.
Even in countries where women’s football is allowed, and does get some funding, the media coverage of women’s matches pales in comparison to that of men’s football. A 30-year study published in 2021 found that most American TV completely ignores women’s sports — 80% of news and sports highlights programs, across the last three decades, have devoted zero time to women’s sports coverage.
The growth of social media, however, has begun to accelerate the pace of change. Because it gives women’s sports figures an alternative space to shout about their achievements, promote their events, and encourage girls to take part. Female athletes can interact directly with fans and raise awareness of the challenges that women face in sport. As Daniel Holman (SVP, Club Expansion at United Soccer Leagues) put it in a LinkedIn post, “Social media represents a huge opportunity for sportswomen to circumvent existing power structures that historically have at best ignored and at worst devalued women’s football.”
In-game tech drives fairness — but it must not alienate fans
Everyone knows that football is a lucrative industry, as well as a popular sport. Allied Market Research forecasts that the global market size will reach $3,712.7 million by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 18.3% from 2021-2027. And with so much cash to play with, it’s not surprising that football clubs and associations are investing in tech development to improve the game.
A new wave of sports tech startups are changing the way that players train and play — for example, a player monitoring system called Playermaker has raised more than €9 million in funding, while scouting app Tonsser has raised around €9.8 million (figures from 2021).
As well as creating fair opportunities for young players to get into the sport, tech can also increase fairness in action, during a game. Figo pointed out that goal line technology, electronic performance tracking systems, and video assistant referee (VAR) tech can all help to make football fair — simply by minimising the subjective human interpretation involved in key game decisions.
But there’s an issue with this: “it’s important that fans understand the decisions that are being made, and why.”
In order for football to keep its joy for the fans who adore it, tech has to be introduced with them in mind, as well as with players and fairness in mind. Fans must understand the problem that a particular technological tool is addressing, and understand how the tech solves that problem; so they can, by extension, understand the decisions that are made as a result of that tech.
Why? Because if fans don’t understand the process behind a decision (like whether or not a goal crossed the line), they feel alienated. And the fans are the people who keep football alive — they’re crucial to the future of the game. So with every new technology that’s introduced to football, an education strategy should also be introduced to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.
Ultimately, tech can’t decide which team is the strongest. Tech can’t make a team win or lose a game; that’s down to talent, skill, and training. The future of technology in football is huge, but it’s not everything. It can’t replace the human experience. Instead, it needs to support players, make fans feel included and involved, and enable football to stay connected to its own beating heart.