Offsides calls, often difficult, are subject to VAR.getty images
The Arab Cup that kicked off last week in Qatar is, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup that begins in that country next November. One of the key innovations under trial is what FIFA has billed as its “semi-automated offside technology,” a supplement to the existing Video Assistant Referee system to help with one of the sport’s more vexing rules.
A FIFA spokesperson declined to identify the participating technology companies, saying only that there was not one single provider. But SportTechie has learned that Hawk-Eye’s skeletal tracking system is one of the providers for the Arab Cup matches. (ChyronHego is also developing a tracking system for this FIFA offsides project.) Sony-owned Hawk-Eye uses as many as 12 cameras to track 18 points on each player’s body at 50 frames per second, triangulating that data to create 3D positions. The official offsides rule requires consideration of every body part capable of scoring — i.e. everything but the arms and hands.
Current uses of VAR to govern offsides calls still require human input to draw a line marking where the deepest, non-goalkeeping defensive player is on the pitch. That process is tedious, time-intensive and subject to some human interpretation. The semi-automated system — powered primarily by tracking cameras and AI software — will make that determination in a half-second. If a goal is scored and a player is deemed offsides, that information is relayed from the VAR room to the on-field referee.
“The reason why we call it semi-automated offside is because it’s still, at 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,” football technology and innovation director Johannes Holzmüller told FIFA’s Living Football show. “And then the VAR informs the referee on the pitch about the decision.”
Full automation is a particular challenge given the nature of the written rule, which dictates players are only penalized if “involved in active play.”
“Technology can draw a line, but the assessment of an interference with play or with an opponent remains in a referee’s hands,” added FIFA chief refereeing officer Pierluigi Collina. “So the involvement of referees in the assessment of the offside remains crucial and final.”
Hawk-Eye Innovations first provided its goal line technology at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup, and began expanding its capabilities a few years ago when FIFA began soliciting solutions for automating all or part of offside detection.
Last August, before FIFA revealed its plans for the Arab Cup, Hawk-Eye global commercial director Peter Irwin explained the benefits of the technology his company was developing. “We all know the offside rule isn’t the simplest thing. But we’re confident we’ll be able to deliver the semi-automatic offside system. We are waiting for football to give its seal of approval for it to be used live.”
The three main benefits, Irwin said, are accuracy, consistency and the speed of a verdict. Much as Hawk-Eye’s tool for tennis is rarely questioned, the company plans to present a similar authoritative view for FIFA.
“So even if it is a millimeter difference, you’ll be able to get into the best position to show that, and we’ll be able to visualize it in the most accepting way to sell the decision,” he said.
VAR’s World Cup debut came in 2018. Beyond FIFA’s scope, five regional confederations and 47 national football associations have implemented it for important competitions with, Collina said, another 100 in varying stages of interest and preparation to add it. Part of the FIFA President’s Vision 2020-2023 is to also develop a lighter, more affordable VAR technology. Current offsides reviews in the Premier League and other circuits commonly take two minutes due to the manual line placement.
“We can say that the number of major mistakes are dramatically reduced but, nevertheless, there are areas where it might be improved and certainly offside is one of them,” Collina said, noting that his charges are accepting of the VAR offsides tech.
From its array of cameras, Hawk-Eye can create digital renderings from any vantage point on the pitch. Hawk-Eye doesn’t track eye movement but does record the direction each player is facing. Using that as a proxy, the Unreal Engine can essentially create 3D point-of-view graphics and replays that have broad use cases for fan engagement. Manchester City recently announced a new plan to do just that.
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