One of the biggest criticisms of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football is it takes too long, thus impacting the flow of the match. In some cases, as per FIFA, the VAR has taken up to four minutes to take offside decisions. Now, a technology has been proposed that promises to reduce that time to just three or four seconds.
The semi-automated VAR, an artificial-intelligence-based technology, is likely to be deployed at the World Cup later this year, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the organisation that forms the rules of the game, has indicated.
“It looks very good and very promising,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Monday. “Our experts are looking into [the trials] before we take a decision on whether it will be used for the World Cup or not.”
What is semi-automated VAR?
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In essence, it’s a method to make quick offside decisions instead of the current system where it’s often tough to determine how long the VAR will take.
The idea is to deploy AI-based technology, which uses automated ball detection. This will create 3D models of a player’s position in real-time, thus improving the accuracy of the kick point using tracking data and sensor technology from camera systems while at the same time, a player’s skeleton will be modelled to identify which part of the body is furthest forward.
According to Johannes Holzmuller, Football Technology & Innovation director, it is ‘based on limb-tracking technology, or as some call it, skeletal-tracking technology.’ “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,” Holzmuller had told FIFA’s Living Football show.
10 to 12 cameras
Holzmuller told the Living Football show that semi-automated offside is a camera-based system, in which they will install 10-12 cameras inside the stadium, and underneath the roof. “These cameras are following the players and tracking up to 29 data points at 50 times per second, and this data is then almost in real-time processed and calculated by the software, by Artificial Intelligence, and this is sent automatically to the VAR and the replay operator,” he had said.
The focus, he added, was first to identify the exact moment when the ball is kicked. And then, the second part is to spot which body part of the attacker or the second last defender is closest to the goal-line.
Power still with referees
Pierluigi Collina, FIFA’s chief refereeing officer, said the final say still rests with the on-field officials and this technology was only there to help them reach a more precise decision. “The referees and the assistant referees are still responsible for the decision on the field of play. The technology only gives them valued support to make more accurate and quicker decisions, particularly when the offside incident is very tight and very difficult,” he had said at a launch event of the Club World Cup.
However, this will probably bring an end to the delayed offside flag, which has frustrated many players and fans. “Will semi-automated offside lead to a removal of the delayed flag for offside? The answer to that would be almost certainly yes,” David Elleray, technical director of lawmakers the IFAB, was quoted as saying by ESPN. “It should remove the uncertainty that fans currently hate. Is he onside? Can I celebrate? Is it a goal?”
Club World Cup trial
The technology was trialled at the FIFA Arab Cup in December but it wasn’t until the FIFA Club World Cup in February that we got to see exactly how VAR offside will look to fans.
The new Hawk-eye system creates a 3D simulation of the offside decision and fans could now see that a player is offside as the simulation moves in line with the players.
FIFA is conducting tests in youth football in the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. The Premier League, it is reported, is considering implementing this technology from the 2023-24 season onwards. That’ll only happen if it is successful at the World Cup.
FIFA, on its part, is confident about it. “We want to achieve accuracy, quicker decisions, also more accepted decisions,” Collina said on Monday. “We have seen in matches where the semi-automated offside was implemented (and) these objectives were achieved.”