FIFA has confirmed that its new semi-automated offside technology will be used at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
FIFA’s head of refereeing Pierluigi Collina announced the news in a press conference on Thursday, saying it will lead to “faster and more accurate decision making.”
The technology uses 12 cameras positioned around the stadium’s roof to track player’s movements, using 29 data points per player to make a 3-D virtual model of the match.
It tracks the player’s limbs to make these data points 50 times every second. The cameras also track the ball’s position, although there is also a sensor inside the Qatar 2022 official match ball that records the exact moment the ball is kicked.
Artificial intelligence then puts all this data together to generate an offside line and automatically alerts the video match officials in the video assistant referee (VAR) room when a player receives a ball in an offside position. The video match officials then check manually and let the referee on the pitch know whether a player is offside.
Fans will get to see the reason for the decision with a short 3D animation shown on TV and the big screens.
How will this new technology affect what we see on the pitch?
It should lead to faster decisions, but even though the automated part of the system is instantaneous, the whole decision-making process isn’t.
The combination of humans and AI in the decision making process makes it more accurate. Sports data scientist Dr. Patrick Lucey says it combines “getting humans to do what they do really well and getting computers to do what they do really well.” But it does mean it takes longer to make decisions than if AI was making the decisions without human checks.
Pierluigi Collina says the average time for a VAR offside check currently is about 70 seconds. Semi-automated offside technology gets this down to between 15 and 25 seconds in FIFA’s tests. The need for manual checks by the VAR team or referee means that FIFA can’t get this time down any further. Collina says that even with the new system, we “cannot get an answer within four or five seconds”.
It also has other limitations. The system only alerts the VAR room when a player touches the ball, so any offside decisions where a player doesn’t touch the ball but could be interfering with play would need to be looked at manually.
FIFA’s head of technology and innovation, Johannes Holzmuller has confirmed that the system can recognize situations like throw-ins and can differentiate between touches from players on opposing teams.
For example, if it were used at Russia 2018, it could tell that for South Korea’s first goal against Germany, a German player played the ball so the goalscorer Kim Young-gwon was not offside.
But Collina, speaking on the same incident in the Germany-South Korea game, said that because it was such a big call, the referee checked that decision manually at the time, even though the VAR room had correctly informed him that the goal should stand.
This suggests that even though semi-automated offside technology can speed up decisions, the referees themselves could still slow everything down if they don’t fully trust the technology and want to check things themselves.
The technology itself might be practical in the brand-new state-of-the-art stadiums in Qatar, but it might be more difficult and expensive to implement across soccer in general. Collina says that FIFA’s job is “to provide football with different solutions,” and that “not all competitions are equal”.
One way FIFA is trying to bring new technology to more levels of soccer is through its development of so-called “VAR Lite” which can operate with just three cameras, making it more affordable.
But it seems that semi-automated offside technology will only be seen right at the top of the game, and though it will make VAR decisions quicker, it isn’t a magic bullet to all of VAR’s problems.
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