One day, robots will play in the FA Cup final…

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soccermidsize.jpgThere’s only two days to go until the FA Cup final, and an eager nation is waiting to indulge in a mass bout of schadenfreude if Chelsea lose and end the season with just the Carling Cup to show for their roubles.

So far, Roman Abramovich has concentrated on splashing his cash on flesh-and-blood footballers, even if there’s a sneaky suspicion that Petr Cech received some form of cyborg upgrade after getting that head injury earlier this season.

But it’s surely only a matter of decades before billionaire club owners are scouting for humanoid robots to play up front, rather than sourcing human players from Milan, Real Madrid, or dodgy South American syndicates.

Think I’m talking tosh? Check Honda’s Asimo out. The humanoid robot showed off his football skills at the CES show earlier this year – we have video proof.

asimo-football.jpgAnd judging by his ability to a.) hit a simple straight pass to a colleague while b.) staying on his feet, he’d robo-walk straight into the present England team. Although Honda’s pride at getting Asimo to run around in circles is worryingly reminiscent of Frank Lampard.

Asimo’s football skills are more an attempt by Honda to show how sophisticated his movements are, rather than a serious effort to make inroads into the average Premiership squad. But there are plenty more robot footballers out there.

In fact, there’s even a dedicated tournament, RoboCup, in which roboticists from around the world send out teams in categories including four-legged, humanoid, middle size, and a special penalty shootout grudge match between Metal Mickey and C-3PO. Well, all except that last one, but it’s a corking idea, eh?

humanoid-robocup.jpgThe next tournament’s due to be held this July in Atlanta (it’s got its own website), while local spin-off events have been held in Japan, Germany and even Iran earlier this year – the latter event attracted 407 teams from 16 nations.

The RoboCup organisers say that by 2050, a team of fully autonomous (i.e. not remote-controlled) humanoid robots will be able to beat the human World Cup holders, which is a lofty aim. If true, we’d presumably see bots appearing in lower-level matches before then. If robots will be able to beat, say, Brazil by 2050, they’ll surely be qualified to grub around in midfield for Bristol Rovers a few years before that.

Of course, there are serious implications for the world of football. Does replacing a robo-player’s head or limbs count as a substitution, or just patching up an injury? Will the bots need their own dressing rooms, or can they just be unpacked straight onto the pitch?

Will they get papped by the tabloids indulging in WD40-fuelled antics, will there be a robo Peter Crouch doing human dances when he scores, and will the police be able to arrest Jose Mourinho for illegally importing an AIBO (and then playing it up front)?

Questions, questions. One thing’s for sure: as you watch this weekend’s FA Cup final, treasure the sight of fleshy pink humans running round the pitch. In a few years time, they may be a distant memory.

Stuart Dredge