The upcoming Men’s Football World Cup in Qatar will be unique in many ways. For the first time in 92 years, the tournament will be held in the Middle East, specifically in an Arab country. It will not be played during the northern summer season as is tradition. But maybe the most significant novelty, or at least the one that is set to leave a most lasting mark, is the extensive use of technology to assist referees that we will see there.
Aside from the still controversial VAR (Video Assistant Referee) -which doesn’t seem to have been entirely successful at reducing human error- we will be seeing a new AI-powered system that will alert referees whenever a player is in an offside position.
But wait. What’s an offside? For those tech lovers who haven’t developed an interest in football so far, but may be interested in watching this new technology at work this November, what you need to know is that a player is considered to be in an offside position whenever a part of their body is closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent (the first one usually being the goalkeeper) at the exact moment in which a pass is directed to that player. It is a pretty complex rule that has produced thousands of disputes throughout football history. Now, after more than 150 years of controversies, the International Football Association (FIFA) is hoping to put an end to them for good during the upcoming World Cup. With a little help from AI.
From Frank Lampard’s infamously disallowed goal to offside technology
June 27, 2010. Bloemfontein, South Africa. England and Germany, two of the most traditional contenders in the history of the Men’s Football World Cup, are playing a tense Round of 16 game. The Germans are leading 2-1 and the first half is about to come to an end. With an elegant gesture at the penalty arc, English midfielder Frank Lampard strikes the ball, which goes over the body of the almost-impenetrable Thomas Neuer, hits the crossbar, then hits the ground half a meter ahead of the goal line, then finally, drawing a strange curve in the air, comes out. It’s a valid goal and now the match should be tied. Fifty thousand people in the stadium and millions watching on TV around the world have seen it, but neither the referee nor the other authorities seem to have noticed.
Nobody knew it at the moment, but they had just witnessed a turning point in the history of football – and probably of sports as a whole. From that day on, FIFA -an institution known until then for its conservative approach to the use of technology-, began a long journey that will have its most advanced chapter in the next World Cup in Qatar.
First came the Goal Decision System, a technology designed to determine whether the ball has entirely crossed the goal line or not. Afterward, the VAR was introduced to aid referees in controversial or complex game situations using cameras and visual technologies. Now, FIFA will be introducing Semi-Automated Offside Technology (SAOT), which will determine if players are in an offside position and give notice to referees. In addition, SAOT will display 3D images on stadium screens so that people can understand the referee’s decision.
Although VAR is now intervening in potential offside plays, SAOT will be able to easily tackle one of its main issues: time. While a decision made with the use of VAR may take minutes, interrupting the flux of the game and altering both players and fans, SAOT can accurately determine a wrongful position and alert the referee in about 20 seconds.
But why does the system need the aid of AI? Well, because of the massive amount of data it needs to process in an extremely short period. SAOT will use 12 cameras located beneath the roof of every stadium synchronized to track 29 data points on players’ bodies 50 times per second. Simultaneously, a sensor in the ball tracks its acceleration 500 times per second to give an accurate time stamp for the decisive pass. SAOT’s ability to swiftly combine these 2 sets of data will ensure the system a key role in the upcoming Men’s World Cup.
Ancient Games, Intelligent Machines
The majority of the most popular sports of our time were invented at some point in the 19th century. Although at first, their main goal could have been entertainment, they were also intended to be something akin to the physical games of the ancient world: a tribute and a testimony to the powers and potentials of the human body.
Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise that old and conservative institutions such as FIFA have been reluctant to accept the use of technology, regarding it as an unwanted intrusion in an entirely human realm. Yet, the history -still quite recent- of technology adoption in football that will have a new chapter this November in Qatar may be pointing in a new direction. What was once an exclusive realm of the human body is opening its doors to the valued help of intelligent machines.
To learn more about AI and the latest technological innovations, keep reading our blog.