The use of Technology in FIFA’s World Cup: VAR and Beyond

The use of Technology in FIFA’s World Cup: VAR and Beyond

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR), was the biggest technological innovation in World Cup. VAR refers to an assistant referee, which makes use of technology, namely video footage and a communication headset, in order to assist the referee to make the right decisions. Throughout the world cup, the VAR has been used several times and has helped to resolve critical decisions, such as the decision to stand Spain’s goal against Portugal.

In general, there is a big debate about the merit and need to use systems like the VAR. Some fans believe that it removes some of the vital excitement of football, as it reduces surprises, while not always being able to eliminate injustice. Indeed, several VAR-supported decisions during the World Cup have been questioned and, in some cases, proven wrong. Despite such concerns, the use of technology in the scope of international football games is here to stay, at least at the level of the World Cup, as decided by FIFA’s International Football Association Board (IFAB). In this context, the following paragraphs shed light on the VAR, as well as on other technologies used in the World Cup.

Video Assistant Referee

As already outlined, the VAR is a supportive tool for referees based on video technology. It is aimed at helping referees to avoid obvious errors and missed incidents associated with decisive moments in the game. In particular, VAR is destined to be used in the following occasions of a football game:

  • Awarding a Goal: Scoring a goal is clearly the most decisive moment in a football game. VAR can be used to determine whether a goal should be awarded or not. For example, VAR is used to identify possible infringements that should cause a goal not to be awarded.
  • Penalty Decisions: Penalty decisions are commonly a subject of heated debate between opponents. VAR can be used to ensure that penalty kicks are awarded properly, especially in cases of doubt.
  • Issuing Red Cards: VAR is also used to review decisions about sending off players based on a red card decision.
  • Verifying Players’ Identities: The referee can also consult the VAR when unsure which player should be sanctioned. This is very handy as there are several occasions where the referee is not sure about the identity of the player who needs to be disciplined.

From a technological perspective, the VAR is based on broadcast and audio equipment, which have been tuned to the needs of football games. VAR’s deployment in the 2018 World Cup in Moscow, took advantage of the 33 broadcast cameras inside the stadiums, which include 12 cameras in slow-motion. Additional cameras for monitoring off-sides was also used, including cameras that draw computer-generated lines on the pitch thereby easing the decision-making process. The streams of the various cameras were made available in a centralized operation room, where the VAR team resides.

Goal Line Technology

Goal Line Technology is considered the forerunner of the VAR. This was deployed in the 2014 World cup in Brazil and was also widely used in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. This technology takes advantage of the information provided by 14 high-speed cameras in order to accurately determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. The cameras are placed at strategic positions around the stadium and point toward the (fixed) goalposts. Once the technology makes the decision, a relevant signal with this information is sent to the referee’s watch within one second.

The algorithms employed by goal-line technology systems are not something new. They are standard triangulation algorithms that are used to calculate the exact position of the ball with the highest accuracy possible. Such triangulation techniques have been used in other sports as well, including tennis, cricket, and snooker. Nevertheless, this technology has been proven extremely useful on at least three occasions in the previous World Cup as well, when referees had problems deciding about awarding goals. These were cases where the ball crossed marginally the goal line and only for a few milliseconds.

More advanced versions of goal-line technology has been developed, including solutions that calculate the ball’s position and trajectory in a four-dimensional space, based on more sophisticated algorithms than classical triangulation. Nevertheless, goal-line technology systems are associated with significant implementation costs, which is a set back against their wider deployment and use beyond the World Cup (e.g., in the scope of national leagues).

Performance Tracking Systems

Most football teams employ athlete (motion) tracking hardware based on pervasive technologies like cameras and GPS systems. In most cases, such tracking systems employ wearable devices that track the movements of the athlete in different settings, including large stadiums. Such tracking systems record a wealth of information about the athlete, including his/her acceleration, deceleration, speed, direction (e.g., linear motion), as well as changes in the direction (i.e. angular and rotational movement). Moreover, movement information is complemented by the athlete’s heart rate. All these pieces of information are wirelessly transmitted to a server and converted to proper reports. It’s also noteworthy that such GPS tracking devices are power efficient since they can operate for as long as five hours while having a long transmission range (e.g., more than 200 meters).

However, the value of the tracking systems stems also from the employment of various data analytics algorithms for the calculation of online and off-line performance characteristics of the player. The latter analytics can be used to identify the average performance of the player, to set a baseline for his/her training, to report exceptional performance, as well as to identify periods that the player becomes susceptible to injuries. To this end, the collected data are analyzed by an appropriate team of experts, including members of both the technical and the medical team.

 Technology is, without doubt, a very useful tool at the hands of both the teams and the referees. Nowadays, it is already deployed in practice rather than being in the realm of a futuristic vision. However, implementation costs, along with cultural set-backs are still hindering its wider deployment and use beyond the World Cup. Few technologies like performance tracking systems are already used by major leagues in Europe and by all top teams. Overall, technology has already changed the football landscape. The exact technologies that will be deployed at a large scale in the future and how it is going to be accepted and used is the sole thing that remains to be seen.

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