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Could Football In Space Actually Be A Thing?

Last week Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho made a quip about analysts’ obsession with style and flair on the pitch.  Mourinho jokingly responded that, “The way people now analyze flair is to take the goals out of the pitch.  It’s the football they play on the moon, and the surface is not good. Some holes. But no goals.” Little did the Portuguese realize that there is actually good reason to believe in the adaptation of sports in space.

For football, the most popular sport in the world accounting for billions of dollars a year in global economic activity, space adaptation may be a natural transition. Paired with private projects funded with the idea of realizing seemingly impossible space missions, such as the X Prize contests or RedBull’s Stratos project, the financial and technical resources to achieve a space version of the game appear closer on the horizon. Recent strides to privatize the space industry are driving lower prices on launches, and there are an expanding number of new entrants into the space market. SpaceX, a private launch services company, believes that current prices could be reduced by a “factor of a hundred” through rocket reusability technologies, which are currently in development.

After a three-day journey in 1968, the Apollo 8 lunar module orbited the Moon making it the first time any human had seen the far side of the Moon. Upon observing the forbidden craters of the dark surface, the tiny craft witnessed Earthrise from the horizon. The pilot could only remark, "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” The pilot then the took the famous "Earthrise" photo, which included the entire human species in one frame, contrasting humanity’s identity to the backdrop of the stars.

Subsequent space missions proved that wherever humans go, the need to identify via sport follows us. Only a few years after, millions watched astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell from the Apollo 14 mission hold the first “Lunar Olympics” on the surface of the Moon, live and on colour TV. Shepard hit a golf ball, and Mitchell threw a javelin. Mitchell later claimed he won the javelin toss by four inches. More recently, International Space Station astronaut Sunita Williams ran the Boston Marathon in space while strapped to her treadmill, and astronaut Garrett Reisman threw the first pitch of a Yankees – Red Sox match after determined practice to throw straight without gravity. Again, humanity applauded the seemingly impossible feats. During last world cup, members of the ISS kicked a small football around in zero gravity just to prove it was possible.

In fairness, a space football project won’t be easy either technically or politically. Decisions will need to be made on rules and pitch design, which will require flexibility to the varying environmental conditions that humans find themselves in. We can imagine floating goalposts, booster-controlled uniforms, or even a torus shaped pitch aboard a rotating, wheel space station.

One of the most difficult tasks will be to determine what players should actually be sent as humanity’s sport emissaries. If the politics of the International Space Station show any indication, football organizations will be eager to include their individual identities in the project, and calls for equal representation will likely be at the forefront of planning discussions.

Whatever the design turns out to be, it will be an effort that challenges our wider capacities as a species, hopefully one that is representative of humanity’s identity and adaptation to the stars. Decades from now, when the players first take their positions and the billions of fans turn they’re heads up to watch, we may all say, “This is usWe are here.”

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