The Future of Football

Historically speaking, technological advances have always had a big impact on sport. From the introduction of hawk-eye in tennis, to the invention of titanium drivers in golf, science has a pretty decent track record of improving sports, or at least, changing them a lot. But, as we hurtle towards a tech-induced future of considerable scientific discoveries, such as agelessness or engineered human beings, there’s a chance that sport could become somewhat obsolete.

In football, ‘moneyball’, and goal-line technology serve as examples of recent modernisation, yet as a whole, the sport has been shamefully slow in accepting and introducing new ideas. There are plenty of positive arguments supporting the introduction of currently available tech, like in-game video replays, but the colossal advancements of the medium future could hold a markedly different fate for the beautiful game. How will football survive in a world of ageless, bio-medically enhanced human hybrids with robot pets? 

Now, you’re probably thinking that you’ve already seen Highlander and you’re not convinced, but the sci-fi fuelled dreams of the 1980’s are rapidly becoming the realities of the 21st century. The concept of agelessness is no longer simply the flight and fancy of Anne Rice fanboys, but a distinct possibility. At least, according to English gerontologist Aubrey De Grey. 

De Grey has earnt pop-culture ‘guru’ status in recent years for his rousing predictions regarding human life extension. Head of the SENS Foundation, De Grey’s work is dedicated to studying the problem of ageing, and a glance at some of their recent discoveries is almost enough to literally put the hair back on Alan Shearer’s head. 

With their sights set on eradicating death by ageing, De Grey and his team have researched and enacted a number of procedures aimed at preventing age-related diseases, such as Parkinson’s. Much of their work is done on the cellular level, an example of which would be the clearing out, or prevention of mutations in our mitochondria. 

Mitochondria are components within our cells that serve in creating energy. When they mutate, which they do more often in older folk, energy creation is inhibited, contributing to the process of ageing. In layman’s terms, De Grey’s methods replace cells that won’t replace themselves, destroy cells that don’t die when they should, and clear out all the by-product that the body hasn’t yet learnt to excrete itself.

Better yet, this sort of therapy could be available during your lifetime. De Grey’s ETA for initial availability stands at around 40-50 years, and given that existing experiments have already yielded results of a consistent 30% life extension rate in laboratory rodents, that might not be much of a stretch. This means, as De Grey states, that the first person to live to 1,000 might be alive today. Here’s hoping it’s Eric Cantona. Some immortal seagulls could be following an ageless trawler sooner than you might expect, and for infinity. 

Of course, the likelihood is that if these therapies are available in fifty years’ time, they’ll probably be accessible only to the wealthiest members of society, at least initially. If the Premier League continues to grow at it’s current, ungodly rate, by 2060, the value of Norwich City PLC will likely rival the GDP of most major European nations, combined. Of all society’s top-enders, young, cash rich footballers, with oligarch bosses and a taste for the immortal would make a fine target market for this sort of treatment. 

Just as Arsene Wenger once arrived in North London, his puffa jacket stuffed with dietary supplements, so too will the pharmaceutical companies of the future peddle life-extending pills to all those willing, wilful and Premier League-ready. 

In the not too distant future, we could be faced with a glut of eternally youthful football players. The same talent on display week in, week out. Sure, two decades of peak Messi might be a thrill, but ten? Imagine a 75-year-old Jamie Vardy, chugging it down the channels, with squeaky clean mitochondria, stuffed like a vegetable at a vegetarian barbeque with the pristine cells of a week-old foetus. 

Further complications arise when we inevitably reach the point at which these therapies become available to the wider public. Try telling an Arsenal fan that they have to put up with Mathieu Flamini for 1,000 years. Not to mention the fact that nobody would want to watch football for eternity. At some point, you would certainly become bored by the incredibly limited narrative. 

And therein lies the mire. Such is the pantomime that it’s often easy to forget what we actually enjoy about football. Asides from the aesthetic, the concept of constant renewal is a central pillar of the sport. The arrival of youngsters and the departure of veterans. 

And it’s not just agelessness on the cards. The year 2040 is the median scientific estimation for the human creation of artificial intelligence. Who can say what fate awaits football beyond the singularity, but in a world in which biological intelligence is increasingly insignificant, football’s humanity would be more important than ever. FC “Moneyball” Midtjylland might build themselves a AI replicant-manager, but if you’ve ever watched the Sy-fy channel, you’ll know that the robot sex doll is never better than your actual girlfriend.

Nanotechnology could potentially create an army of uninjurable footballers, with its focus on the microbial, the microscopic, the itsy-bitsy. The smallest things often make the most difference, they say, but football’s already got Wes Hoolahan – and the threat of injuries and psychological impact are a key part of what makes the game so thrilling, and so human. This sniff of humanity must act as the cause for football’s resistance. Bio-medically enhanced humans and a litany of super-tech products sound pretty good, but football’s essence is in its fragility. 

Artificial intelligence may be able to out maths us. Beat us at chess. Predict all manner of outcomes. But it will never make art. It will never know the joys of the nutmeg, or the fervour of Eric Cantona’s dropkick. It will never be able to track the synapses of the human brain, chain of thought, or our subconscious simmering under all that. AI will always be flawed in that. But then it would be flawed, seeing as it is a product of human minds.

Ageless, uninjurable, ultra-fit footballers will nullify any excitement we derive from the sport, and sand down every edge. Technical ability might improve, but it would likely do so across the board. Everyone would be so amazing that the collective raising of the bar would be meaningless. In fact, the quality of football has already improved dramatically in the last 50 years and no one really notices. The pay-off would not be worth the cost, and for these reasons, football must deny such advancements. 

Deny immortality and live like the romantic heathens of old. In a world of Gods, who are the heroes? Like smokers, those who dare to be human. Deny bio-medical engineering and retain those gruelling injuries. We’ll revert to an ancient gladiatorial inclination, hordes of immortals baying for blood in a world that’s stopped bleeding. Deny artificial intelligence a role within your football club. Resistance might not be futile. 

Human behaviour is unmappable, and this is what sport is all about. Press too far beyond the pleasures of the vanishing spray, and football might come face to face with its own mortality.

You can follow Joe Devine on Twitter (@JM_Devine)

The Future of Football
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