Semi-automated offside technology at World Cup: How does it work?

VAR offside

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will use semi-automated offside technology.

FIFA will use the technology in an attempt to improve speed and accuracy for offside decisions.

The technology was successfully trialled at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup and at last year’s FIFA Club World Cup.

What is Semi-Automated Offside Technology?

“Semi-Automated Offside Technology has been developed to support the video match officials,” explained Johannes Holzmuller, FIFA’s director of football technology and innovation. “So, during the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, the video operations room will receive an automated alert in case of an offside situation, as well as automatically selected kick point, and automatically drawn offside line within a few seconds after the incident.

“After that the video match officials have to validate the proposed selected kick point as well as the proposed drawn offside line. The VAR communicates the final decision to the referee on the pitch.”

“In terms of accuracy, it is important because when you are more accurate it’s good,” added Pierluigi Collina, the chairman of the FIFA referees’ committee. “In terms of time, I think it’s more psychological. We felt something was needed, and that’s why we wanted to offer something giving a quicker answer. We are aware that football is different [from other sports] and making a decision faster was important, and that’s why we worked in this direction.”

How will Semi-Automated Offside Technology work?

At the moment, VAR can only use broadcast cameras to make offside decisions. But with semi-automated offside technology, cameras will be set up on the roof of the stadium. They will be able to track all 22 players to calculate their exact position on the pitch. There will be 29 data points on each player to cover all possible limbs and extremities that could be offside.

Also, the official World Cup match ball, the Adidas “Al Rihla,” will be fitted with a sensor that sends data 500 times a second. This means it can detect the exact moment the ball was played for the offside decision – far more accurate than the conventional camera frames (limited to 50 frames a second).

“We will implement in each World Cup stadium, 12 dedicated optical tracking cameras,” Holzmuller said. “All these cameras are working together, and 100 percent synchronised. In addition to that, the official match ball will have a connected ball technology. A new Adidas suspension system houses a 500 hertz IMU [inertial measurement unit] sensor in the centre of the ball.

“This information is transmitted via antennas inside the stadium to the video operations room. In order that the system can detect precisely the offside position, the optical tracking system is collecting 29 data points, and this will happen 50 times per second.

“The IMU sensor inside the ball will provide a ball data stream than is nothing more than the acceleration data of the ball in multiple axis. We will get an automated detection of a very accurate kick point, which is especially important in very close and very tight offside situations.

“We are combining the different data sets by applying Artificial Intelligence, and this automated alert is then appearing on a timeline inside the video operations room. This is happening immediately, within a few seconds. But then of course in addition there’s the manual validation process by the video match officials to make sure that the data and everything is correct.”

Will Semi-Automated Offside Technology mean marginal offsides again?

“The objective is to have a very accurate technology, something similar to goal-line technology which offers a very high accuracy,” Collina explained. “The goal-line technology is praised by everybody for its accuracy. So if the ball did, or didn’t cross the goal line by very few millimetres, and the technology proves it, everyone is happy and everyone praises the technology for the very good answer provided.

“It should be the same for the Semi-Automated Offside Technology, which provides the evidence that a player was offside or onside in a very accurate manner. This technology should be praised as well.

“I don’t see any difference between certifying that a goal was scored or not, or certifying that a player was in an onside or offside position.”

VAR offside

“We use the same elements to generate a 3D animation because we want to provide the best possible perspective to the football fans,” Holzmuller added. “I think we all agree, especially for tight offside decisions, sometimes it’s quite difficult to say if a player was offside or not.

“The replay shows the exact position of the players at the moment the ball was played, and the 3D animation will be shared on the giant screen in the stadium and on TV.”

How long will it take to make decisions?

“I heard of four or five seconds to get the offside decision,” Collina said. “We will decrease from an average of 70 seconds to 20 or 25. It might be less when the offside incident is quite easy buy certainly we can’t get an answer in four or five seconds. This is definitely a wrong expectation. It will be faster, it will be more accurate. These are the objectives.”

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Is technology taking over football?

“We have heard about robot referees and similar things,” Collina added. “I understand that sometimes this is very good for headlines, but this is not the case.

“The match officials are still involved in the decision-making process, because the semi-automated offside gives an answer only when a player who was in an offside position plays the ball. In other words, the assessment of interfering with an opponent remains the match officials’ responsibility.”

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Will it ever be fully automated?

“Goal-line technology clarifies black-and-white decisions as there is only the ball and the line, and for this reason it was quite easy to find a fully automated solution,” Collina said last year. “In an offside incident, the decision is taken after having analysed not only the position of players, but also their involvement in the play.

“Technology, today or tomorrow, can draw a line but the assessment of interfering with play, or with an opponent, remains in referees’ hands. The involvement of the referees in the assessment of offside remains crucial and final.”

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