At Qatar 2022 even when the game begins, the virtual world still seeps in

<span>Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP</span>
Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

The camera slowly zooms in on Lionel Messi’s face. And keeps zooming. And keeps zooming. The lens is steady, the focus deep and dramatic, blurring everything but the sole object of its attention. The camera keeps zooming.

Soon Messi’s shoulders are no longer visible. Then his neck disappears, then his chin. The camera keeps zooming. It is moments before Argentina and Mexico are about to step out in Lusail and the greatest player in the world is being subjected to the photographic equivalent of a nasal swab.

Something weird has been happening at this World Cup. Of course lots of weird things have been happening at this World Cup but this appears to be a more subtle development, a quiet shift in tone and aesthetic. You can see it in the television coverage, with its deep focuses and swooping aerial shots, a product that feels increasingly cinematic in scope and style. This process, to some extent, has been going on for a while. But perhaps the more startling development is the way the digital world is also beginning to bleed into the live experience.

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For most of the last century, football has existed essentially as two parallel games. There was the game of tickets and stadiums and grass and physical seats, a world that you could see and hear and smell and touch.

Then there was the game that came filtered through a screen, a world of buttons and pixels, mediated by commentators and TV producers, theme music and editing. Qatar 2022 is perhaps the first World Cup where the division between these two worlds is no longer clear.

One can sense this from the moment one climbs the steps and emerges into the arena itself, which at this tournament feels less like entering a sporting venue and more like beaming through a portal. Loud, pumping, wall-to-wall music fills every conceivable space and orifice. The tunes stop a few seconds before the game begins and kicks in a second after the whistle blows. On the big screens, adverts for crypto‑trading compete for attention with the booming, rib‑juddering din of the official pitchside announcer, jabbering away like a circus ringmaster.

The Qatar World Cup uses semi-automated offside technology.
The Qatar World Cup uses semi-automated offside technology. Photograph: Fifa

Up in the stands you are vaguely aware that there are thousands of fans singing and swaying around you, and yet their unlicensed noise is almost invariably drowned out by the officially licensed noise resounding from the speakers. Occasionally the announcer will stop and invite the fans to “make some noise”. Which, in fairness, is what they had been doing the whole time. But at Qatar 2022 it doesn’t matter how many you are or how loud you are. You will speak only when spoken to.

Even when the real game begins, the virtual world still somehow manages to seep in. You will doubtless be familiar with the ghostly, disembodied digital mannequins of the semi-automated offside technology. But for spectators in the stadium this is just one part of a ceaseless computer-generated cyclorama being enacted on the giant screens. Animated graphics interpose every few seconds bearing live statistics (line breaks, contested possession, direction of attack). Later in the game the screens show replays of earlier incidents rendered – for some unfathomable reason – in CGI, so you can see a digital avatar of Raheem Sterling crossing for a digital avatar of Harry Kane, even though you saw the actual thing about five minutes earlier.

All this, of course, is if you choose solely to watch the game through the time-honoured medium of your eyes. Open the Fifa+ app, however, and a whole new panorama presents itself. Using its augmented reality mask, you can point your phone at the pitch and see it transform into a heatmap, overlay live stats on to the turf, watch the same slow‑motion replays being served to viewers at home. Which is, from a technological standpoint, extremely impressive. But it does raise a fundamental question: if the future of football is watching a live game through your phone screen, then what exactly is the point of being there? There is, of course, an element of “old man yells at cloud” about all this.

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Doubtless this live/digital hybrid is probably aimed at the younger end of the market: the generation that grew up consuming much of its football not in stadiums or on television but through video game consoles, and latterly through online games such as Fifa Ultimate Team. And really what we are seeing is not so much the melting of the stadium experience into the television experience but the melting of both into the gaming experience, with its regenerating soundtrack, its intuitive haptics and cinematic visuals, its perpetual scroll of data and graphics. Wherever you are, however you watch, football resembles an increasingly curated product while offering the illusion of perpetual user control.

This is the first Web3 World Cup and Qatar is in many ways the perfect test tube for this daring experiment: the metaverse as country, an unsettling world of layers upon layers, where you are never quite sure what is real and what is virtual, or whether it even makes sense to distinguish between the two. Sometimes you walk down the street and feel a sudden blast of cold air, with no grille or fan to offer any clue as to where it came from. At the Villaggio Mall in Doha a gondolier will take you on a tour of its replica Venetian canal system. The official attendance at many World Cup matches has been higher than the official stadium capacity.

Everything is real. Nothing is real. If what we are watching is increasingly curated, to what extent can we trust what we are watching? When we press the button, are we actually choosing to press the button, or are we simply being funnelled around like shoppers through an infinite digital hypermarket? Is this still a sport, or simply an entertainment product being cleverly packaged as a sport? These are questions without definitive answers. After all, this is your game, and you can play it however you want.