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Fifa ‘referee tech’ to transform the beautiful game at Qatar 2022

Reuters/Toru Hanai
VAR helps avoid disputes such as the one between Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and referee Cesar Arturo Ramos during World Cup 2018
  • Tracking cameras and sensors set to avoid referee mistakes
  • Video assistant referee (VAR) has been upgraded to catch incidents
  • Adidas’ match ball has a sensor inside to determine offside rulings

The 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar is set to kick off with some new technology that will prevent a replay of some of football’s most controversial moments and generate even more potential revenue streams for the game.

The single biggest tournament for the single biggest sport will begin in Doha on November 20, with 36 referees from 29 nations, along with a newly qualified artificially intelligent arbiter.

This year’s video assistant referee (VAR) has been upgraded to catch tight offside incidents and alert the human team – a technology that could have proactively saved England from being knocked out of the World Cup in 1986, according to UAE-based sports commentator and writer Robin Chatterjee.

He is referring to Argentina versus England in the quarter finals when Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal seemed to be scored with his fist.

“This was the most important goal in the history of the World Cup and the referee made a glaring howler,” Chatterjee told AGBI.

“But there was no technology to overrule the referee’s call. There’s a lot of passion and emotion linked to the referee decisions, but also a lot of investment at stake.

“Getting it wrong in a game could mean victory or defeat for the team, which again has enormous [financial] impact. 

“Some of these players are literally worth millions of pounds and you have to protect them.

“So, when it comes to a situation like catching offences, a foul could make or break a player’s career.

“If you have invested in a team or a player and you’re on the verge of losing or winning, a decision also affects sale of tickets. Clubs always want to get the right decisions and calls because they’re investing so much.”

Thirty-five years on since the infamous match, a recent poll of 2,000 football lovers commissioned by Samsung UK found that legions of England fans are still fuming about Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal.

Crowd, Person, Man
Referee Wilmar Roldan refers to VAR during the Ecuador versus Brazil South American qualifiers for Qatar 2022. Picture: Reuters/Rodrigo Buendia

VAR technology joined by sensor in ball

Following the successful use of VAR technology at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, Fifa President Gianni Infantino said Fifa would strive to harness the full potential of technology in football and further enhance VAR for the Qatar tournament.

Fifa has spent the last few years further improving the VAR system, including the use of semi-automated offside technology.

The latest technology, to be implemented in Doha, uses 12 dedicated tracking cameras mounted underneath the roof of the stadium to track the ball and up to 29 data points of each individual player, 50 times per second, calculating their exact position on the pitch.

The 29 collected data points include all limbs and extremities that are relevant for making offside calls.

Al Rihla, Adidas’ official match ball for Qatar 2022, will provide a further vital element for the detection of tight offside incidents as an inertial measurement unit sensor will be placed inside the ball. 

This sensor, positioned in the centre of the ball, sends ball data to the video operation room 500 times a second, allowing a very precise detection of the kick point.

Fifa said by combining the limb- and ball-tracking data and applying artificial intelligence, the new technology provides an automated offside alert to the video match officials inside the video operation room whenever the ball is received by an attacker who was in an offside position at the moment the ball was played by a team-mate. 

Al Rihla, Adidas’ official match ball for Qatar 2022, detects offside incidents via a sensor inside it. Picture: Fifa

But referees are human

However, a human referee is still the final decision maker.

Before informing the on-field referee, the video match officials validate the proposed decision by manually checking the automatically selected kick point and the automatically created offside line, which is based on the calculated positions of the players’ limbs. 

This process happens within a few seconds and means that offside decisions can be made faster and more accurately.

“VAR has already had a positive impact on football, and we can see that the number of mistakes has already been dramatically reduced,” Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the Fifa Referees Committee.

“We expect that semi-automated offside technology can take us a step further. We are aware that sometimes the process to check a possible offside takes too long, especially when the offside incident is very tight.”

This is where semi-automated offside technology comes in – to offer faster and more accurate decisions. 

“The testing has been a success and we are confident that, in Qatar, we will have a valuable support tool to help referees and assistant referees make the best and most correct decision on the field of play,” he said.

“I know that someone called it ‘robot offside’; it’s not. The referees and the assistant referees are still responsible for the decision on the field of play.”

Samsung’s poll said some 63 percent of respondents believe VAR would have eradicated most of the World Cup injustices that have taken place over the years.

While VAR has not yet achieved 100 percent accuracy, Chatterjee said the tech will certainly lead to more accurate and fairer judgments.

Meanwhile, he added that VAR also gives the sport a platform to seek out new revenue streams, particularly in terms of broadcasting and sponsorships.

“All these new avenues are for the commercial benefit of the sport and the spectator benefit of the sport,” he said. 

“We are entering into an era where tech and sport are so closely interlinked that one works for the other.”

A 2019 Financial Times report said that Fifa has already been approached by several companies wishing to sponsor the VAR breaks at the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

However, Fifa has rejected the offers as developing its VAR system is “a top priority at the moment”, the report said.

Spain’s La Liga and the UK’s Premier League are said to be viewing VAR sponsorship as a possible opportunity.

In May, one sports marketing executive estimated that VAR had been on screen for 27 minutes during last summer’s World Cup and hazarded that the bigger international tournaments could clear £50 million ($56.32m) for sponsorship of the pauses, or up to £100m if bundled with other commercial opportunities.

“Tech companies are going to keep making money as they improve their algorithms,” Chatterjee said, adding that the applications run across other games including cricket, tennis and American sports. 

“Innovation is done with the sole purpose of filling seats. The opportunity is also in when it gets magnified and played on screens around the world.

“TV pays a lot of money to get the rights to promote or telecast the game. These decisions are all part of that whole package. It’s all a glorious cycle.”

The global soccer market was valued at $1.836 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $3.727bn in 2027, growing at 18.3 percent per annum.

The sports technology market was estimated to be worth $18.75bn in 2021, and it is predicted to grow up to $42.52bn by the end of 2027, growing at 16.32 percent per annum.

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