Every four years, billions of football fans from all corners of the world come together to watch the FIFA World Cup, the world’s biggest football competition. This summer, with the World Cup landing in Russia, we have highlighted five factors and novelties to look out for.
VAR was, without a doubt, one of the biggest talking points ahead of the tournament as it is the biggest change in football regulations being introduced in Russia. While some competitions had already introduced VAR last season, some major stakeholders such as UEFA, La Liga and Premier League expressed their doubts about it. In England, clubs voted against the use of VAR in April, and as a result it will not be introduced next season.
A week has passed since the World Cup kicked off and we have already seen how the system enables referees to make better decisions. VAR correctly confirmed the penalties given in the matches Portugal v Spain, Sweden v Korea, France v Australia and Denmark v Australia. However, decisions remain subjective – some claim there was a push in Switzerland’s equaliser against Brazil, some say there was no foul – but the referee awarded the goal after consulting the VAR, deeming that there was no punishable action.
So far, the biggest criticism of VAR is that it is only used when the referee decides to do so. During England’s match against Iran, Harry Kane was wrestled to the floor inside the box, but the referee and his assistants completely missed the action, which everyone saw seconds later in a replay. The officials failed to consult, something that happened again in the Russia v Egypt game and, in many occasions, in the Portugal v Morocco game, where the referee refused to look at VAR despite numerous complaints from players of both sides.
This problem could be solved with better two-way communication between the ref and the external VAR team, situated in Moscow throughout the World Cup. Another potential solution would be calls from players like we have seen in field hockey with VAR and in tennis with the hawk-eye system, where players can call for the use of technology reviews a limited number of times. However, we are still exploring the boundaries of VAR and its impact on the game. We can certainly expect FIFA to modify some game rules and refereeing processes to progressively implement the use of VAR in coming years.
Football Audience: Live Broadcasting vs Digital Media
The 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil reached 3.2 billion viewers – almost half the world’s population -, the same as the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, with one billion watching the final between Germany and Argentina. These worldwide audience figures have only been surpassed in recent years by the Olympic Games which reached 3.5 billion in 2016 for the Rio Games, the same as in London 2012.
Despite football having a growing audience thanks to the growing popularity of the sport in heavily populated countries such as China, India or the US, the global audience of the World Cup did not grow between 2010 and 2014, partly due to the increasing number of sports broadcasters working with a subscription model.
In territories where World Cup matches can only be watched once a subscription or a one-off fee has been paid, the audience of those watching matches live can only be expected to decrease. While this model brings in higher revenues for FIFA which are used for the development of the sport, hundreds of millions of potential viewers do not get the chance to follow the tournament unless they are willing and can afford to pay.
On the other hand, the reach of the World Cup has the opportunity to grow through digital media. In fact, there is unquestionably a shift towards new platforms such as digital streaming services and mobile apps and new formats such as near-live, highlights and content built around the expectations and reactions of the different stakeholders with fans becoming influencers.
Players such as Goal.com, Copa90, DAZN and even Spotify, which did not exist until only a few years ago, have dedicated World Cup content programmes which are being followed by millions these days. Even fans watching games live on TV now have second and even third screens available which they are interacting with others via Twitter or Whatsapp.
The increasing fragmentation of the media landscape is an opportunity for multiple brands to be associated with the World Cup. However, it is also a challenge for official sponsors, who need to invest in advertising and activation much more than what they already paid FIFA for their rights in order to make their brand stand out from the rest.7
The outcome of this World Cup from a media perspective could trigger some key markets changes such as major broadcasters acquiring upcoming digital players to complete their offer and protect their market share or major digital media companies acquiring the rights of the biggest football competitions which could force traditional broadcasters to go out of business.
The FAN ID is an identification document required by the Russian authorities for football fans attending World Cup games. All ticket holders need to hold a FAN ID together with a valid match ticket in order to enter the stadiums hosting matches. This could be very useful to fight against ticket resellers.
The FAN ID provides visa-free entry to Russia for foreign citizens that are ticket holders. The FAN ID also has some benefits such as free transport services, including inter-city trains and public transport in the host cities. Thanks to the introduction of the FAN ID and the attractiveness of the competition, most of the World Cup tickets available for sale have been sold.
If the FAN ID works well this summer in Russia, we can only assume that FIFA will request hosts to offer it again in future World Cups. This could certainly be challenging for Qatar 2022 given the political blockade between hosts and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as for the United Bid with the strict international visa policies of the US and the current border control regulations with co-hosts Canada and Mexico.
Russia’s Public Image
Russia’s public image was severely damaged by the doping scandal uncovered by the McLaren report, which raised questions about the fairness of this summer’s competition – despite no prior doping cases amongst the local national players – due to the facts that took place at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia.
Another highlighted issue ahead of the World Cup was the violent acts that some Russian club fans took part in their away games in the Champions League and the Europa League. Luckily for fans, FIFA and the Russian authorities, so far there have been no racism and violence issues in host cities.
Russians, therefore, have a chance to redeem themselves as welcoming hosts of a fair competition. So far, the World Cup’s only focus has been on football which is great news for Russia’s public image. In addition to that, Russia’s national team performance has been outstanding so far with 8 goals in two matches and virtually classified for the knockout stages.
If the World Cup continues to have such a great atmosphere and thrilling matches with fans traveling safely between cities and cheering respectfully for their national teams, Russia’s public image will surely benefit from hosting this summer’s tournament.
Before the tournament started, five national teams were, on paper, the favourites to win the World Cup: Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina and Spain. Out of those, only France managed to get a victory in their opening game. While Spain had a good offensive performance against Portugal and Brazil created some good chances against Switzerland, Germany gave away multiple chances to Mexico and Argentina could only draw against Iceland, a team that represent a country with a population below 400,000, in their first ever World Cup appearance.
Only Russia, Belgium and Croatia, three nations with no previous World Cup victories, managed to win their opening games (against Saudi Arabia, Panama and Nigeria, respectively) with a margin of more than one goal. Many of what may be considered the top footballing nations failed to set the tournament on fire in their opening games. It can be argued that a cautious approach was taken, not wanting to lose the first group stage match.
On paper, 2018 seemed to be a return to the European and South American dominance following a decade in which Asian and African teams improved their performance and seemed to be challenging the more established national teams. However, the first round of matches have shown that this might not be the case and results to date raise many questions for football fans: are football superpowers still the best teams? Will they improve in the following matches and fight for the trophy once again? Could this be a chance for the likes of England, Belgium, Croatia, Mexico, or even hosts Russia to steal in and win the tournament?.
The lack of dominant performances in the opening matches sets the stage for an exciting second and third round of group stage games, as the football powerhouses will look to take control of the competition. Many of the world’s best perform best under pressure, and on one of the world’s biggest platforms, many of these world class players will show their talent in the upcoming days which will make for an exciting finish to the World Cup group stage.
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