FIFA is to stage further trials of AI-powered semi-automated Video Assisted Referee (VAR) technology in the hope that it will result in quicker, more accurate offside calls in soccer.
Close offsides are one of the decisions that can be referred to VAR, with assistant referees urged to let play continue rather than flag for an infringement. Once the attack has ended, or if the ball goes out of play, the incident can then be referred to VAR if there is any doubt.
However rather than eliminate controversy surrounding narrow offside decisions, VAR has amplified the situation.
Goals have been disallowed for the tiniest of infringements, while Patrick Bamford of Leeds United was penalized for an extended arm. Although goals cannot be scored with the hand, they can be scored with a shoulder, and Bamford’s shoulder was deemed to be behind the last defender when the ball was played.
There is also concern among some quarters that allowing play to continue, even when there is doubt, means more goals will be overturned. The argument is that players and fans can’t celebrate goals properly because of the uncertainty and soccer will become a less passionate sport as a result.
Equally problematic is the length of time it takes to make a decision, with critics of the technology arguing that it disrupts the flow of the game. The current process relies on the naked eye of VAR officials who manually draw lines on the available footage.
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AI could eliminate the risk of human error and provide instantaneous decisions. Semi-automated offside technology was first trialed at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar last year. The system used limb-tracking technology coupled with AI algorithms to determine which limb is closest to the goal line when a ball is played.
The trial was offline in nature and did not have any influence over any decision at the competition but it is understood that the results were positive. FIFA presented the results at the first meeting of a ‘Working Group of Innovation Excellence’ in Zurich in February and hopes to introduce the technology at the 2022 FIFA World Cup which will also be in Qatar.
Inevitably there must be further tests to ensure the technology is accurate. Any system must be able to accurately detect the ‘kick point’ and correctly identify which body part places a player onside or offside. Potential solutions include sensors and video recognition.
Testing was inevitably delayed by Covid-19 but FIFA is now ready to press ahead. Three technology providers have expressed an interest in the next development phase, which could take place as early as next year. These tests will provide hundreds of offside models that can ‘train’ the AI algorithms to make more accurate decisions.
No matter how accurate the system is, however, FIFA says referees will always have the final say on decisions – just as they technically do with Goal Line Technology (GLT). In practice, this would either require a member of the VAR team to inform the referee of an offside or for the system to send a notification to the referee’s watch.
Separately, FIFA has also tested more affordable ‘VAR Light’ systems that democratize the technology. Another criticism of VAR is that it is expensive and has significant technical requirements meaning that it can only be deployed at an elite level. This, it is feared, could create a divide between different levels of soccer.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), French Football Federation (FFF) and UEFA have all conducted offline tests of cost-efficient VAR Light systems and the results will now be made available to both FIFA and to IFAB – the body that determines the rules of the game.
Source: Forbes – Business