FIFA World Cup in Qatar: It's 'the hand of God' vs. the hand of technology

The combination of this tech is already used in spaceships, rockets, and airplanes.
Baba Tamim
Semi-automated offside technology makes fair play a norm.
Semi-automated offside technology makes fair play a norm.

FIFA /Adidas  

"A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."

The legendary Diego Maradona made this statement to reporters soon after flicking the ball with his hand over goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the net in the 1986 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals against England in Mexico, which the on-field officials completely missed.

Following this controversial "divine intervention," Argentina later went on to win the world cup.

FIFA World Cup in Qatar: It's 'the hand of God' vs. the hand of technology
Argentina player Diego Maradona outjumps England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to score with his 'Hand of God' goal during the 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final at the Azteca Stadium on June 22, 1986 in Mexico City, Mexico.

But, if the "Hand of God" was involved in today's technologically advanced world cup, it would have been caught red-handed in a matter of seconds.  

Fast forward to 2022, just three minutes into the most recent Qatar World Cup opening match against the tournament's hosts, referees reversed Ecuador's opening goal.

"Ecuador's first goal was canceled due to this high-tech innovation, and it was clearly exhibited for the audience, on the stream and in front of the TV, the animation of what and how the decision was made, and the validation of that decision," Professor Rony Ibrahim, from the Department of Sport Science at Qatar University told Interesting Engineering (IE). 

"That was the first time that had happened in the World Cup. And we were quite fortunate to witness it in the first match and the first goal."

A replay showed that the person who headed the ball back to Félix Torres for Enner Valencia's disallowed goal was Michael Estrada, whose foot and knee was slightly offside.

The lack of an explanation during the match left the spectators perplexed. 

Dr. Mahfoud Amara, Associate Professor of Sport Management & Social Sciences at Qatar University, finds using the new version of the technology applied during the World Cup interesting.

"It's an interesting development in terms of the amount of data that is going to be processed and the data that is going to be available to make decisions," he told IE

What caught Estrada's knee offside?

Micheal Estrad's knee was caught by Semi-Automated Offside Technology (SAOT), which debuted at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. However, its improved version, initially put to the test during the UEFA league earlier this year, is currently in use for the World Cup.

It's a tool that automatically determines the relative positions of the players at the precise instant the ball is played, allowing video assistant referees (VAR) to make offside judgments that are quicker and more accurate.

"SAOT has been developed to support the video match officials," Johannes Holzmuller, FIFA's director of football technology and innovation, said in August. 

"So, during the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, the video operations room will receive an automated alert in case of an offside situation, as well as automatically selected kick point and automatically drawn offside line within a few seconds after the incident."

"After that, the video match officials have to validate the proposed selected kick point as well as the proposed drawn offside line. The VAR communicates the final decision to the referee on the pitch," he added. 

Understanding SAOT to set it straight 

FIFA World Cup in Qatar: It's 'the hand of God' vs. the hand of technology
The decisions are generated into a 3D animation that perfectly details the position of the players’ limbs at the moment the ball was played.

Three primary elements that make up SAOT technology are the Camera tracking system, Artificial intelligence (AI), and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) or "connected ball technology."

Each stadium has 12 special monitoring cameras underneath the roof that can identify 29 different body parts of a player to determine if the play was offside. The cameras transmit information 50 times every second. And then finally comes the Artificial Intelligence's (AI) role.

AI processes the data given and warns the VAR when circumstances call for non-regulatory action.

"These optical cameras assist in more than just tracking the footage. They not only record videos but also do it in a synchronized manner. Therefore, coordinated as such that a processor based on a machine learning algorithm can recognize the simplest way to translate it," explained Ibrahim, who has a Ph.D. in Biomechanics. 

"It identifies sort of active landmarks on the body of an athlete, like, elbow, joint, shoulder, head, eyes, ears, knee, and ankle, etc." to make precise calculations helping in reviewing decisions. 

And, hence it aids the VAR team, which consists of the video assistant referee and three assistant video assistant referees (AVAR). All video assistant referees are top FIFA video match officials. The team also includes three replay operators, who select and provide the best camera angles.

The duties of the AVAR include monitoring the live action on the field while the VAR is performing a "check" or a "review," keeping track of incidents that can be reviewed and communicating the results of reviews to in and off-field live broadcasters.

"The core technology of the VAR 2.0 translates videos into a 3D model of each player, similar to animation, which is then made available to the spectators in the field on the screen so that they can observe this decision in any measure," said Ibrahim. 

And one of the major contributors to VAR's decision-making is the connected ball technology. 

Connected ball technology

FIFA unveiled Al Rihla, the official football for the Word Cup in Qatar, in March this year. It featured cutting-edge sensory technology that, when connected with the VAR 2.0, makes it the fastest precision-driven football the world has ever seen, making quicker and more accurate decisions on the biggest stages of the sports world. 

The connected ball technology contributes to FIFA's semi-automated offside technology by combining player location data with artificial intelligence and providing AVARs with immediate information to aid in decision-making.

A 500 Hz inertial measurement unit (IMU) motion sensor is housed and stabilized in a novel suspension system in the ball's core. 

According to Ibrahim, the ball's prime sensor is connected to three other sensors, and a rechargeable battery powers the sensor. 

FIFA World Cup in Qatar: It's 'the hand of God' vs. the hand of technology
Inside the connected ball technology.

The first sensor, the accelerometer, measures the acceleration, meaning the change in the velocity of the object, the ball. The second sensor gyroscope measures the difference in the orientation and rotations of the ball. And the third sensor, the magnetometer, measures the magnetic intensity of the ball, allowing the VAR software to calculate the exact direction of the ball.

"The combination of these sensors enables us to determine how much force is being applied to the ball. In which direction is the ball moving. Is it in the air or on the ground," explained Ibrahim.

This technology is undetectable to players and has no impact on the ball's performance while offering unprecedented insight into every aspect of its movement.

"We already find the combination of these three sensors in smart cars, spaceships, spacecraft, rockets, airplanes, etc.," said Ibrahim. 

The Video Match Officials can review live data for the first time with this new technology created in close collaboration with FIFA and KINEXON, experts in cutting-edge sensor networks and edge computing. 

This technology automatically provides accurate information, 500 times per second, on when a player has touched the ball, aiding in detecting confusing touches and information about tough offside calls, ultimately improving the accuracy and speed of VAR decision-making.

"And these [points] are measured with greater precision than the camera or the VAR's optical tracking system," said Ibrahim.

"Every second, this ball transmits 500 points to the video referee, so 500 measurements, and that's super..., super accurate."

The connected ball technology has been thoroughly and robustly tested with numerous professional and amateur football clubs worldwide (including blind testing), specifically at the FIFA Arab Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup 2021 in Abu Dhabi, with no noticeable performance change.

"As FIFA Preferred Provider for Live Player and Ball Tracking, our goal with Adidas is to use state-of-the-art technology to improve the experience for everyone involved without changing the game of football," Dr. Maximilian Schmidt, Global Sports Lead at KINEXON, said in July in a press- release. 

"We are confident that with accurate live ball data, the connected ball technology will enable a new age of football analytics and fan experience."

Will technology damage the sport?

Returning back to the opening game debate over Ecuadorian Enner Valencia's goal that was disallowed. 

The match didn't only highlight the significance of SAOT's involvement but also sparked a debate over the technology's use.

The close-offside call was only clear to SAOT and was technically valid. But whether it's accurate in a more general, life-affirming sense depends on how you feel about long-running arguments over FIFA's efforts to use cutting-edge tools to help referees.

Ibrahim thinks it might be because the public still needs to receive a thorough explanation of the technology.

"You could obviously see that the Ecuadorian fans were completely confused after the goal was nullified. It may be because FIFA is yet to explain it explicitly to the general audience."

"Using technology in soccer will only serve to damage the passion and emotion felt for the sport," the former FIFA president had said during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. 

The football organization was opposed to referees employing technology to help them decide whether a ball has crossed the goal line and other contentious situations that arose during games until recently. 

Dr. Amar would like the technology to be there without affecting human connection. 

"This [SAOT] will help, of course, but I'm hoping that we'll preserve the human element in decision-making, particularly with on-field referees who will be supported with this technology without removing their decision-making authority," said Dr. Amara. 

Human error has made the soccer game entertaining and heartbreaking for as long as the game has existed. Some errors even lead to the countries losing World Cups. 

"I believe technology is effective, not harmful to sports. I see it as making sports fairer," said Ibrahim.

"We cannot claim that it is completely correct. Of course, it's not even 99% exact, but it's as close as possible given current technology advancement," he concluded. 

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