The opening match of this World Cup saw a goal ruled out by Ecuador’s Enner Valencia. Commenters left bewildered. Twitter outraged. The reason? FIFA’s 3D calculation models indicated Valencia’s teammate Michael Estrada’s kneecap was offside during his movement in relation to Qatar’s players, in the lead-up to the goal. The ingredients controversies are made of? Equally, precise calculations that could inevitably mean the difference between a win or a loss. Two sides of the same coin.
Footballs with sensors. Real-time player stats in live broadcasts. Semi-automated offside decisions. Big data for players. The video assistant referee (VAR), albeit controversial at times. Goal-line technology. Slowly but surely, technology’s envelope of the beautiful game is becoming thicker. More relevant too, than it ever has been.
Also Read: Fans clash in FIFA World Cup opener: Ecuador supporter’s controversial act leaves Qataris fuming, video goes viral
“I’m going to have high blood pressure if it continues like this for the rest of the month,” said former England and Newcastle United footballer Alan Shearer, during the TV broadcast, after the VAR call to disallow Ecuador’s goal. Adoption of technology in football leagues such as the Premier League, and at global events such as this year’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, is increasing. The change in heart hasn’t come easy though.
“Though reluctant to include technologies that slow down the game, 6 incidents such as Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England at the 2010 World Cup pressured FIFA to find a solution,” says Mathieu Winand, Professor of sport management at Luxembourg’s Lunex University in the research , “More Decision-Aid Technology in Sport?”
In theory, wider adoption of technology provides more data for correct decision making, particularly when things are as close as a kneecap being offside. There’s much more technology in play.
Advanced metrics, mixed with AI
For the first time, players at the FIFA World Cup would be able to access on-field performance data via a smartphone app, which only they’ll have access to. The data gets divided into three categories – enhanced football metrics, physical performance and football intelligence.
“For the first time at a FIFA World Cup, not only the participating teams but also all players will have the opportunity to get direct access to their own performance data and the related video clips after each match,” says Johannes Holzmüller, FIFA Director of Football Technology & Innovation.
It’ll include speed thresholds, positional heat maps, pressure applied to opponent when not in possession and ball distribution relative to other team’s defending. The data spectrum is wide, which along with video clips, will be fed into complex algorithms and models to give teams and players a potentially enriched perspective on playing style and strategy.
The data can be compiled for training and matches. “Each player should be trained individually in order to perfect their technique and decision making,” says Franco Sanchirico, head of the department of advanced technology at the Marcet football academy, based in Spain.
These metrics follow the FIFA Football Language definitions, last updated in August 2021, with an eye on this year’s tournament. “By creating this language and implementing it across all of our tournaments, FIFA will be able to conduct longitudinal analysis to understand how the game is evolving over time,” Arsène Wenger, FIFA Chief of Global Football Development, had said at the time.
Smart ball that defines play, with data
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match ball, will be the first time that a connected football is being used in the tournament. Called Al Rihla (this translates to “the journey” in Arabic) and made by Adidas, the ball’s built-in tech will play a crucial role for the VAR system.
There is a Suspension System at the center of the ball which stabilizes a 500Hz inertial measurement unit (IMU) motion sensor. This is battery powered, and will provide another layer of touch, speed and velocity data that can help video referees decide offside calls, for instance.
The sensor sends ball data to the video operation room at the rate of 500 times per second.
Goal-line technology can theoretically use the data from the ball too. However, FIFA says that is not the case, this time. “The data from the sensor inside the ball is not used to determine if the ball has crossed the goal line or not,” they say in a statement.
It means, in Qatar, the referees will work with information collected by fourteen installed for purpose high-speed cameras which create 3D visuals to calculate whether the ball crosses the goal line.
Assisting the referee
VAR has been criticized often for questionable calls in leagues in many countries, but has seen increased adoption over the years. This World Cup is well and truly on its way to adding another chapter.
Be it Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino’s armpit being judged offside against Aston Villa in 2019, Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham denied an equalizing goal against Manchester City in 2021/22 UEFA Champions League quarter finals, or disallowing West Ham’s Maxwell Cornet’s goal due to a supposed foul on Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, this season.
“That’s up there with one of the worst VAR decisions made since it’s come into the game,” West Ham captain Declan Rice fumed on Twitter. “It is not to laugh about. It is too serious. Managers get sacked for losing football games,” said Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, after the infamous 2019 VAR decision.
FIFA is attempting to add more layers to the data that dictates decision making for close calls, be it offsides, goals, penalty decisions or tackles.
“There is now much greater awareness across the world of the VAR process, and it has become much more widely accepted. However, improvements can always be made,” says former football referee Pierluigi Collina, now Chairman of FIFA’s Referees Committee.
This will rely heavily on AI for automated ball detection and creating three-dimensional models of player position. There are more cameras capturing player and ball movement and the ball sending back movement data, which should allow for more accurate calculations about the kick point or point of tackle, for instance.
Why the human element is still needed, and therefore a team of referees working with technology, is to judge factors such as whether a player is interfering with play or obstructing an opposition player.
The video assistant referee team will have access to 42 broadcast cameras. Of these, eight capture super slow motion while four are for ultra-slow-motion footage. It is these cameras which will be critical to define the relative positioning of an offense, such as an offside play. But that isn’t where the chain ends.
Quicker calls for certain decisions?
New at this world cup will be the semi-automated offside technology, which is another layer of VAR. This new tech will utilize 12 dedicated tracking cameras mounted beneath the roof of the stadium to track the ball.
In addition, these will also collect as many as 29 data points (including movement of limbs) of each player at the rate of 50 times per second, to calculate the exact position on the pitch.
“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,” says FIFA, in a statement.
The technology has been tested at the 2021 Arab Cup and the 2021 Club World Cup. The data collected during these tests was analyzed by MIT Sports Lab, TRACK at Victoria University and ETH Zurich.
Before the on-field referee is informed, the video match officials yet validate technology’s guidance by manually checking the kick point and the automatically created offside line. The time taken for these steps? It is expected to be no longer than a few seconds.
“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,” adds Collina.
Once the World Cup is over, the English Premier League is expected to introduce radical new real-time player stat overlays for match broadcasts, starting with the latter half of this season. “Technology continues to drive how data is collected, analyzed and presented,” says Adrian Ford, general manager of Football DataCo, a data rights licensing company, which will play a key role in the availability of player data for broadcasts.
The technology will use broadcast cameras to track and record movement of multiple points on a player’s body, a method called “mesh tracking”. Data such as running speed or shot velocity will be almost real-time, factoring in the up to eight second delay in broadcast. Quite how it will be delivered, and whether it’ll be available for all viewers across all cable and direct to home (DTH) delivery mechanisms, will become clear in the coming weeks.