FIFA trials AI-powered automated VAR calls ahead of 2022 World Cup

FIFA will carry out further tests of semi-automatic video-assisted referee (VAR) technology with artificial intelligence in the hope that it will result in faster and more accurate offside calls in football.

FIFA will carry out further tests of semi-automatic video-assisted referee (VAR) technology with artificial intelligence in the hope that it will result in faster and more accurate offside calls in football.

Closed offside are one of the decisions that can be referred to the VAR, and assistant referees are urged to allow play to continue rather than signal a violation. Once the attack is over, or if the ball goes out of play, the incident can be referred to the VAR in case of doubt.

However, instead of eliminating the controversy surrounding narrow offside decisions, the VAR has expanded the situation.

Goals have been disallowed for the slightest of infractions, while Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford was penalized for an extended arm. Although goals cannot be scored by hand, they can be scored with the shoulder, and Bamford’s shoulder was considered 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 in doubt, means more goals will be disallowed. The argument is that players and fans cannot celebrate goals properly due to uncertainty, and as a result, soccer will become a less passionate sport.

Just as problematic is the time it takes to make a decision, and critics of the technology argue that it disrupts the flow of the game. The current process relies on the naked eye of VAR officials manually drawing lines on the available images.

AI could eliminate the risk of human error and provide instant decisions. The semi-automatic offside technology was first tested at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar last year. The system used limb tracking technology in conjunction with artificial intelligence 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 influence any decisions in the competition, but the results are understood to be positive. FIFA presented the results at the first meeting of an ‘Innovation Excellence Task Force’ in Zurich in February and hopes to present the technology at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will also be in Qatar.

Inevitably, there must be more testing to ensure that the technology is accurate. Any system must be able to accurately detect the “kick point” and correctly identify which part of the body places a player in or out of play. Possible solutions include sensors and video recognition.

Testing was inevitably delayed by Covid-19, but FIFA is now ready to move on. Three technology providers have expressed interest in the next phase of development, which could take place next year. These tests will provide hundreds of offside models that can ‘train’ AI algorithms to make more precise decisions.

However, no matter how accurate the system is, FIFA says referees will always have the final say in decisions, just as they technically do with Goal Line technology (GLT). In practice, this would 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 clock.

On the other hand, FIFA has also tested more affordable ‘VAR Light’ systems that democratize technology. Another criticism of the VAR is that it is expensive and has significant technical requirements, which means that it can only be implemented at an elite level. This, it is feared, could create a division between the different levels of football.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the French Football Federation (FFF) and UEFA have conducted offline tests of cost-effective VAR Light systems and the results will now be available to both FIFA and IFAB, the body that determine the rules of the game.

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