Exasperated critics of the current Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system and the way referees are running them might soon get some respite if all goes to plan this year.
FIFA have introduced semi-automated offside technology in the 2022 UEFA Champions League group stages and are planning to utilise it at the upcoming World Cup finals in Qatar at the end of the year.
While it is not exactly handing over all refereeing decisions to robot umpires, FIFA’s latest foray into football technology aims to iron out the kinks in its current VAR system.
“FIFA is committed to harnessing technology to improve the game of football at all levels, and the use of semi-automated offside technology at the FIFA World Cup in 2022 is the clearest possible evidence.” – FIFA President Gianni Infantino
There have been two main criticisms of VAR in its current form. The first is that human error is still prevalent, with many clear and obvious incidents still missed by video replay or waved away by the on-field referee.
The second is that decisions have been taking far too long, with offside calls often holding up goal celebrations for minutes on end as the referees pore over replays for the slightest hint of a limb straying out of bounds.
The average wait for an offside call has reportedly been around 70 seconds, and the new system aims to reduce it to an average of 25 seconds per decision.
How does it work?
So what exactly does this new semi-automated offside technology involve and how is it a step in the right direction?
Well, the system utilises 12 dedicated tracking cameras mounted underneath the roof of the stadium and will be able to monitor 29 different body points on a player, up to 50 times a second, to calculate their exact position on the pitch at all times. These 29 points include all limbs and extremities that might be relevant for making offside calls.
This technology, together with an inertial measurement unit (IMU) in the match ball which sends data back to the video operations room 500 times per second, will help provide officials with real-time offside alerts using artificial intelligence. UEFA claims it will help determine offsides “quickly and more accurately”.
“It is based on limb-tracking technology, or as some call it skeletal-tracking technology,” says Johannes Holzmuller, FIFA’s Football Technology & Innovation director. “We call it semi-automated offside because it’s still, in the end, the VAR who has to validate and confirm the proposed offside line and the proposed kick point that comes out of the software, and then the VAR informs the referee on the pitch about the decision.”
Semi-automated offside tech in action
The semi-automated offside technology and connected ball technology have previously been trialed at the FIFA Arab Cup and Club World Cup in 2021 as well as the Super Cup final this year, and will now be used throughout the Champions League group stages in the run up to the 2022 World Cup.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang thought he had scored an equaliser for Chelsea against Dinamo Zagreb on debut in their Champions League encounter, but had his celebrations cut short thanks to the assistant referee’s flag and confirmation from the semi-automated offside system.
Likewise Rasmus Falk’s goal for FC Copenhagen as semi-automated VAR ruled his effort out against Borussia Dortmund in the 88th minute of a 3-0 loss.
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