New AI-powered technology will be used at the Qatar World Cup, Fifa has confirmed, saying it will halve the time it takes to make VAR offside decisions.
Semi-Automated Offside Technology (SAOT) will see a complete overhaul of the system used to judge ‘positional’ offside decisions before a goal. While a referee and assistant will still make calls from the field and the referee will have the final say on SAOT decisions, the controversial practice of rewinding TV footage will be a thing of the past.
“Semi-automated offside technology is faster and more accurate and offers better communication with the fans,” said Pierluigi Collina, chairman of FIFA’s referees committee. “It can create a new form of visualization for fans at home and on the pitch. All the tests worked well and therefore [SAOT] will participate in the Qatar 2022 World Cup.”
During the World Cup, offside reviews will be carried out by creating a 3D map of the goal action, using a combination of 12 cameras and a high-tech ball. The Adidas Al Rihla ball will be equipped with a sensor that sends location data 500 times per second, which will be compared to players’ positions on the camera, with synchronized devices tracking 29 points on players’ bodies and relaying information 50 times per second.
This data will be processed using artificial intelligence technology designed in collaboration with a number of universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After being sent to a SAOT operator, it will be rechecked by a VAR. The VAR will then forward the verdict to the referee, who will make the final appeal but, in theory, will just approve the decision. Collina said that in testing the time taken to make a decision, compared to the previous VAR system, had dropped to 25 seconds from an average of 70 seconds.
Collina said the main goal of the new system was to achieve more accurate decision-making. Speeding up decision times, he said, was more of a “psychological” significance to fans. Critics of VAR’s offside decisions have focused on accuracy and speed – with cameras currently judging player and ball position deemed too imprecise.
“The goal is to have very precise technology, similar to goal-line technology,” Collina said. “Goal line technology is used to measure at 3cm distances; now it’s millimeters and the technology is praised. Everyone praises technology and so should [SAOT].”
He added: “We [also] wanted to offer something that gave a faster response. In terms of precision it is important, in terms of time it is more psychological. If I watch other sports experiences the time [taken by technology to come to decisions] is experienced in a normal way by coaches and spectators. In the NBA, you see players drinking, spectators having fun, nobody cares about the time. We know football is different [however] and this time is important.
Once the decision is made, a 3D rendering of the offside incident will be shown on television and on screens in World Cup stadiums. Collina said the image would be easier for the viewer to interpret than previous television images with lines drawn across, but the images would take an additional 25 seconds to generate.