The new offside technology for the 2022 FIFA World Cup explained

Photo Credit: AP

At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there’ll be some new off-side technology implemented. The question of what is offside in football really gets the same answer as it had done for years. At its simplest level, an attacking player can’t be beyond the last defender when a ball is played forward to them. But the offside rule is a lot more complex than that. It’s far more nuanced.

Now the relationship between football and technology is increasing. The new offside technology coming at Qatar 2022 is semi-automated. It’s designed to offer referees further support from the sidelines. But how does it work and perhaps more importantly, will it work for the interest of the sport?

Goal-line technology

Back in 2011, the first major technological advance in football began its testing. Goal Line technology was being examined as FIFA strove to eliminate human error from the game. The technology was, as the name suggests, only focused on whether the ball had crossed a goal line.

Goal-line technology made its debut at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In a group stage match between France and Honduras, the technology was called on for the first time. France striker Karim Benzema saw his shot hit one post, then fly across the goal and hit the other. The ball then rebounded and Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares fumbled the ball over his own goal line.

Pundits and spectators discussed it heavily in football news, and even after many replays many couldn’t decide whether the ball had fully crossed the line or not. But the goal line technology in use, a system called GoalControl came up with the answer that it had. It may have been millimetres only, but the technology called it.

Video Assisted Referee

In the 2019/20 Premier League, Video Assisted Referee (VAR) was introduced, having been approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The IFAB is the body that signs off on the laws of the game. Representatives of the UK’s associations, the English FA, Scottish FA, Football Association of Wales and Northern Ireland’s Irish Football Association along with FIFA make up the body.

VAR has changed the face of football massively. The technology was used for the first time at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was the first tournament to fully use the technology in all of its matches. With a success rate of 99.3% on the decisions that it made during the tournament, it eliminated around 4% of human errors made by referees not using VAR.

The first time that VAR was called upon in the World Cup, was the awarding of a penalty to France against Australia in the group stage. France were also awarded a penalty in the World Cup Final against Croatia by VAR. That decision saw France go 2-1 ahead in the showpiece match. Les Bleus won the fixture 4-2.

In 2019 VAR was used for the first time in UEFA Champions League match. Manchester United’s fixture against Ligue 1 side PSG, plus Serie A side Roma’s home game against FC Porto were the first matches in the competition to use it.

2022 FIFA World Cup new offside technology

Where is the technology in football going next? It is on to semi-automated offside technology (SAOT) that will be implemented for the first time at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This is a tool to be used exclusively for offside calls in World Cup matches. As part of their statement about the new technology, FIFA said that it is “a support tool for the video match officials and the on-field officials to help them make faster, more accurate and more reproducible offside decisions on the biggest stage of all”.

The technology is a step on from the current VAR systems that are in place. It puts the action under even further scrutiny. For the match, there will be twelve cameras tracking the ball and each player. The semi-automated system’s cameras will be situated on the roofs of the stadiums at the 2022 World Cup.

It will give a clear and precise indication of where the ball is on the pitch. SAOT will indicate exactly when a ball has been played. That is a crucial factor in telling what is offside in football matches, and what is not. Data from the ball will be taken hundreds of times a second via a 500 hertz IMU [inertial measurement unit] sensor. The chip will be inside a suspension unit housed inside the World Cup ball. The suspension unit was created by ball-makers Adidas.

The other part of it is that for every player on the pitch, a set of data points will be taken 50 times per second. The individual points are for different “active” points of a player’s body. That information is then factored into an offside decision. Player positions will also be mapped by the extra cameras.

Testing of the new offside technology

The new offside AI system has already been tested by FIFA in a couple of tournaments already. In 2021 it was partly implemented at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup and 2021 FIFA Club World Cup. The latter event is when it was used for the first time.

One big advantage of the new semi-automated off-side technology is that it should provide a more rapid picture of whether a player is offside or not. A huge criticism of the current VAR system is that the final decision can take a long time to get to. It’s far from perfect and it’s often not possible to fully determine the time and point of contact by a player on the ball. The new SAOT technology in football should give out its decisions within seconds. It will be based on far more accurate data than the current VAR has.

Time Checks at the 2022 FIFA World Cup

There have been times when VAR has taken what has felt like an eternity to come to a decision. Because there are still massively subjective calls with the use of VAR in offside decisions, those refereeing the game are still making manual calls on the offside line. The more complicated the scenario on the pitch, then the longer a VAR decision can take. The checks have slowed down the game. Players and fans haven’t been sure whether to celebrate a goal or not, and it has not limited controversy from the game, even with the video evidence. The waiting game over calls has been a frustrating thing for fans to get used to, and for some people, VAR’s not a trustworthy system.

The delayed flag issue

Another aspect of the VAR system has been delayed flags. This is when an assistant referee lets the passage of play following a tight decision, carry on. It’s something that courts controversy. An attacking team could go on in that passage of play and put the ball in the back of the net. Only when the ball has gone dead, would the assistant referee put their flag up for a check. As part of the Premier League rules on this, the assistant referee will keep their flag down if it looks like there is an immediate goal-scoring chance happening.

Another advantage of the new offside technology is that it should cut down on delayed flags. The near-instant decisions that it is capable of providing, thanks to tracking the ball and the players, means the system can alert an assistant referee immediately who can then put their flag up and stop play.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup matches will be more precise

The current VAR has led to some really bizarre, finicky calls being made by referees. Something like a big toe or even an armpit has led to goals being disallowed for an offside decision. It has given a degree of precision that has never before been seen in football. It’s about to get even more precise with this new technology. The hype surrounding the SAOT is that it will eliminate doubt over decisions.

A lot of offside decisions are very marginal calls and still lead to a lot of arguments. But there are still going to be hairline decisions being made, ones that it would have been impossible for a human eye to pick up. So football is about to get even deeper into nitpicking. There will probably still be high frustration levels for fans who see a goalscoring opportunity wiped out by the tiniest data point that the AI detects.

When the new semi-automated offside technology makes a decision, it will render a 3D animation for fans in the stadium and watching at home. In the animation, the position of the player and the very moment that the ball was played will be displayed.

The SAOT does not replace the current VAR systems. It’s bolted onto them. There will still be all the current checks that VAR does over goals and penalty decisions for example. So it will still have its place and those potentially frustrating checks. As part of the checks that happen for a goal, offside is one of them. But that is where the SAOT will be a huge advantage because it will mean that that portion of checks are done significantly quicker than VAR can currently provide.

Eliminates human error, not frustrations

A new era has arrived and FIFA has put itself further into the hands of technology by embracing this AI. Accuracy should be vastly improved over the current systems in place, human error is essentially going to be eliminated. But not all of it.

Some subjectivity will still exist over some offside decisions. An example is whether a player is interfering with play. Is a player within the line of vision for the opposition goalkeeper? Did a defending player make a “deliberate play” of the ball? How will it all unfold in the 2022 FIFA World Cup?