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FIFA will track players’ bodies using AI to make offside calls at 2022 World Cup

FIFA, the international governing body of association football,* has announced it will use AI-powered cameras to help referees make offside calls at the 2022 World Cup.

The semi-automated system consists of a sensor in the ball that relays its position on the field 500 times a second, and 12 tracking cameras mounted underneath the roof of stadiums, which use machine learning to track 29 points in players’ bodies.

Software will combine this data to generate automated alerts when players commit offside offenses (that is: when they’re nearer to the other team’s goal than their second-last opponent and receiving the ball). Alerts will be sent to officials in a nearby control room, who will validate the decision and tell referees on the field what call to make.

FIFA claims this process will happen “within a few seconds and means that offside decisions can be made faster and more accurately.” The data generated by the cameras and ball will also be used to create automated animations, which can be played on screens in the stadium and in TV broadcasts “to inform all spectators in the clearest possible way” of why the call was made.

It’s the latest example of sports embracing automated technology to help referees make decisions. FIFA previously introduced VAR, or the video assistant referee, which allows referees to review decisions using sideline monitors, at the 2018 World Cup.

In a press statement, Pierluigi Collina, chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, said the new system would allow officials to make “faster and more accurate decisions,” but stressed that humans — not “robots” — were still in charge of the game.

“I know that someone called it ‘robot offside’; it’s not,” said Collina. “The referees and the assistant referees are still responsible for the decision on the field of play.”

Said FIFA president Gianni Infantino: “This technology is the culmination of three years of dedicated research and testing to provide the very best for the teams, players and fans […] and FIFA is proud of this work, as we look forward to the world seeing the benefits of semi-automated offside technology at the FIFA World Cup 2022.”

A key part of the system is an inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensor, placed inside the official Al Rihla ball, which transmits its location on the field 500 times a second.
Image: FIFA

The 2022 World Cup will take place in Qatar, making it the first World Cup to ever be hosted in an Arabic country. To offset the heat of Qatar, the tournament will be held from November to December instead of in the summer, as is tradition.

The decision to host the World Cup in Qatar has been strongly criticized. An investigation by the United States’ Department of Justice found that top FIFA officials had been bribed to award the tournament to the Arab country (narrowly beating the US itself to secure hosting rights).

Numerous investigations by organizations like Human Rights Watch and The Guardian also found that Qatar’s stadiums have been built by migrant workers who are essentially slaves — their passports confiscated and their salaries suspended. An investigation in 2021 found that at least 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar due to extreme working conditions (like lack of access to water) since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010.

The first four games of the 2022 World Cup will be played on November 21st, and include England vs Iran and USA vs Wales (all teams in Group B).

*I work for an American company. I’m a British writer. Calling it “association football” instead of “football” or “soccer” is an outcome that pleases absolutely no-one — aka, a compromise.

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