What’s new? SportsTech innovation in the world of association football.

As you know, MakoLab has people with all sorts of interests and enthusiasms on board. One of them is senior .NET developer Artur Olszczyński, who is most definitely into sport! Some of you may remember that one of our top Insights articles in 2018 was the one he wrote about technology in football. Now, he’s penned another real treat for football fans… a brand new overview of the latest technologies being used in the ‘Beautiful Game’. So, without further ado, it’s over to Artur!

In just a couple of days time, huge audiences will be gathering in front of TV screens to follow the fortunes of the footballers taking to the pitch in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup™ 2022. FIFA has announced that semi-automated offside technology (SAOT) will be used. A tool which provides support for match officials and the referees on the pitch, SAOT is designed to help them make faster, more precise and fairer decisions on disputed situations during a match.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining what offside in association football really is… apart from being one of the most controversial aspects of the game. It’s not only the spectators who will go to great lengths to spot an offside. Referees have no easy task with it, either. Nevertheless, the definition is fairly concise and simple to remember.
It goes like this. An offside occurs when a player plays the ball to a teammate at the moment when the teammate is closer to the opposing team’s goal line than the second-last opponent. The last opponent is usually the goalkeeper.
The controversy offside engenders is far from negligible. First, the referee isn’t always able to judge effectively whether or not an offside has occurred, because the players are good at making it hard to settle. Second, the referee’s assessment includes the offside position, which doesn’t always indicate an offside. The player might be in that position, but when a teammate passes the ball to another player, who then passes it to the player who was previously offside, the referee cannot call a free kick. The technology is therefore intended to support the video assistant referee (VAR) team, enabling them to confirm whether or not the main arbiter has made the right decision concerning an offside.
A video assistant referee (VAR) system was used for the first time during the FIFA World Cup™ held in Russia four years ago. VAR is technology which allows match officials to watch replays before making a final decision, as I described in the article I wrote back then, in 2018 . For the past few years, FIFA has been working with Adidas and various technological partners and suppliers to continue taking the VAR system forward. This includes the use of SAOT. The new technology, which is making its debut in Qatar, introduces further improvements. In a nutshell, it uses twelve cameras installed on the roof of the stadium. It tracks the ball and twenty-nine points on each player’s body, fifty times a second, calculating their exact positions on the pitch.
One aspect of the system is the Al Rihla, the official match ball for the Qatar 2922 FIFA World Cup™. Produced by Addidas, it features a custom-designed chip which sends five hundred signals a second relating to the position of the ball. This facilitates an ideal assessment of any moment when the ball is in play, which has been a major problem until now. Previously, the VAR provided single-frame television replays, in other words, with a change of frame every 1/25 of a second, which was insufficient in terms of catching the moment.
Another feature is the scan of the players on the pitch. They are scanned by the cameras on the roof of the stadium, which is capable of capturing whether a given player’s knee, or even their finger, is further away from the defender or not. The twelve cameras are dedicated solely to scanning the players.

Once a decision has been confirmed by the VAR officials and the referee on the pitch, a 3D animation is generated from exactly the same positional data points as those used to make the decision. The animation provides an excellent description of the positioning of the players’ limbs on the pitch at the moment when the ball was played and it will always give the best possible views of an offside. After being generated, it is shown on the giant screens in the stadium and will also be made available to FIFA’s broadcasting partners in order to provide everyone watching the match with the relevant information in the most transparent way possible.

The greatest advantage to this system is its speed. In recent years, match officials took around seventy seconds to adjudicate whether or not an offside occurred. The new system is designed to enable them to do it in twenty-five seconds, which is almost three times as fast.
Nonetheless, we do need to remember that this solution isn’t going to solve every issue relating to offsides. It was tested for the first time during the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup matches. Poland’s top referee, Szymon Marciniak, was involved and, in one interview, he remarked that “the system’s impressive, just as long as it’s clear that it doesn’t replace people. It’s there to help them”. It will be up to the referee to assess whether a player was offside or nor or if the play was made by a defender on a given team. The system is designed to support the match officials, not to preclude them from doing their job and the responsibility that goes hand in hand with it.
There is one more noteworthy thing. This is most certainly superb, state-of-the-art technology… but technology has a love of malfunctioning! As an example, let me turn to a situation which arose at an English Football league match played two years ago, during the COVID pandemic lockdown. It was Sheffield United versus Aston Villa and there were no fans in the stadium. The match was crucial because of the balance of power in the league table. The goal-line technology was telling the referee that there had not been a goal. However, every single televised replay left not the slightest shadow of a doubt that the goalkeeper had stumbled backwards with the ball, meaning that the ball completely crossed the line.
Why did that happen? Why did the technology fail? Well, at that precise moment, there were several players in the vicinity of the goal and the goalpost. Unfortunately, as the company behind the system put it in a statement issued soon afterwards, this caused “a level of occlusion [which] has never been seen in [the] nine thousand matches”1 where the system had been in operation. There were numerous reference points; the net, the goalpost, the ball, the goalkeeper holding it and the other players close to him. Sadly, the system was incapable of reading the situation correctly. It had undergone more than two hundred and forty thousand tests and no errors had been found. However, those particular circumstances had simply never been envisaged.
Finally, I’d like to recall how Pierluigi Collina, the best referee the world has ever seen, has said that we need to keep calm, because there just will be controversies.
Will that be the case? As of 31st November, we’ll have the chance to find out, as we follow the games in Qatar during the FIFA World Cup 2022™.

translation by Caryl Swift
1, retrieved on 17.11.2022.

18th November 2022
6 min. read

Artur Olszczyński

Senior .NET Developer

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