‘There has to be a level of trust’: Trent Alexander-Arnold on the virtual future of football fandom

Trent Alexander-Arnold admiring a virtual recreation of himself
(Image credit: EE)

Is the beautiful game losing its shine? With the increasing number of NFT, cryptocurrency and trading platform endorsements cropping up on the social media feeds of football clubs and players in recent months, you’d be forgiven for thinking new technologies are tainting the image of the world’s most popular sport.  

But among the influx of fan tokens and grumpy-looking ape illustrations, the shift towards embracing the digital world is also changing football for the better. At least, that’s the opinion of England and Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, who believes augmented reality (AR) wizardry can bring supporters and players closer together than ever. 

Trent is speaking with TechRadar to promote EE's new 5G Superstore at Wembley Stadium, a world-first smartphone-enabled AR shopping experience (yes, that’s a mouthful) allowing England fans to examine the details of merchandise in the virtual world – with a little help from Trent’s avatar – before purchasing in the real one. 

The initiative formed part of a temporary instalment ahead of England’s latest round of international friendlies – all proceeds from the store were also matched with a donation to the Alzheimer’s Society – but Trent is keen to emphasise that it’s one we could see being implemented at clubs up and down the country in the near future.

“This definitely has potential,” he tells us. “Definitely. It's just the first of its kind. In my mind, it’s exciting for the fans to go into a store and be able to interact with their favourite players.

“But the possibilities with technology [like this] are endless. We see it all the time, how things are always being taken a step further. Who knew, 25 years ago, that we’d all be walking around with phones? Now it’s normal. Who knows where this technology will take us? But it’s an exciting time to be a part of it.”

Trent is referring to the advanced motion capture magic that allowed EE to replicate – in exquisite detail – his face and body in virtual form. To understand just how detailed, we ask him to compare the experience of being scanned by EE against EA’s methods for doing the same on FIFA

“There were a lot more cameras than with FIFA,” Trent admits. “When you're trying to create an avatar in the AR space [as opposed to a video game], you need a lot of cameras involved. I was standing in a room by myself with 100-odd cameras around me – which was definitely strange. But once I was able to see the end results, and how it was going to look, it was unreal. Just the fact that it was so realistic.”

A window to the world

Of course, AR versions of Trent and other football stars can’t truly replicate the personality, skill or passion of their real-life counterparts, but they could provide an alternative route through which fans can engage with their heroes – particularly those overseas.  

“We forget that it's not just about fans in the stadium,” Trent explains. “There’s millions and millions more people all around the world – not just those in Liverpool – who I want to interact with, who I want to engage with. The fans in Australia, Africa, America, Asia. The people who wake up in the middle of the night to watch our games.”

The digital age has given fans more opportunities to interact with players, and likewise the players with fans.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

“It’s a lot easier [for a fan] to go to a three-o-clock game in the afternoon than it is to watch one at four in the morning, so these initiatives are for fans all around the world. As players, we want to make everyone feel involved in the process. It’s not just about turning up to the stadium, that’s not the only type of support we enjoy.”

“25 years ago,” Trent continues, “the only time you'd be able to see [a different side to] your favourite players was during an interview on Match of the Day. Now, you can follow them on socials, see behind the curtain a little bit, interact with them more – the digital age has given fans more opportunities to interact with players, and likewise the players with fans. 

“That’s what we [as players] want, as well. We want platforms [allowing us] to speak to fans, give our messages and speak our minds in safe places. The more technology advances in this space – the more we can help [improve] that interaction between ourselves and fans as much as we can – the easier and better it becomes for everyone.”

Trusting the process

Before we let Trent escape to the more familiar environment of the training pitch, we’re keen to hear his message to those uncomfortable with technology’s growing presence in the people’s game – the looming spectre of NFTs, cryptocurrencies, the metaverse and so on. 

“What I would say is that I think a lot of people are sceptical about these things because they don't know how they're going to unfold. With technology, there has to be a level of trust as well. We've seen it throughout the course of history. With emails, phones, smartphones, FaceTime – at the start of all these technologies, there were questions. But eventually, [people] start to perfect these crafts and make them work fluidly, and they benefit everyone. 

A lot of people are sceptical about these things because they don't know how they're going to unfold.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

“So that’s the stage that we’re at. There will be questions around [these digital technologies], whether they’re positive or negative, but with every big change, you’ve got to adapt. I’m sure, over the next five or 10 years, there will be systems in place for everyone to access this kind of stuff – we're just in that early stage of learning.”

For one thing, Trent’s right about trust being the basis for positive change in football. Only a year ago, the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) was being decried as the death of the sport. Perhaps, then, we’ll soon wake up to a future where adoring fans can watch a game alongside virtual versions of their favourite players. 

For now, though, we’ll have to make do with shopping.

Axel Metz
Phones Editor

Axel is TechRadar's UK-based Phones Editor, reporting on everything from the latest Apple developments to newest AI breakthroughs as part of the site's Mobile Computing vertical. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion.  Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned an NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.