The days of waiting an interminable amount of time for a VAR offside decision to be made are almost over ... or at least FIFA hopes so.
FIFA has spent the last two years on trials and tests of semi-automated VAR, which will enable offside to be detected in seconds. And now it's ready for its first public outing at the FIFA Arab Cup, which starts on Tuesday.
The aim is for semi-automated VAR offside to be approved and ready for use at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in just under a year's time. It means that the Arab Cup, which is also being played in Qatar as a test event for the World Cup stadiums, is a crucial steppingstone.
What is semi-automated offside?
Football is looking to the future, because this is all about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analysis. But most importantly for the fans, it's quick.
The AI-based technology uses automated ball detection and creates three-dimensional models of a player's position instantly. The plan is that it will improve the accuracy of the kick point using tracking data and sensor technology from camera systems, while a player's skeleton will be modelled to identify which part of a player's body is furthest forward.
"It is based on limb-tracking technology, or as some call it skeletal-tracking technology," Johannes Holzmuller, Football Technology & Innovation director, told FIFA's Living Football show. "We call it semi-automated offside because it's still, in the end, the VAR who has to validate and confirm the proposed offside line and the proposed kick point that comes out of the software, and then the VAR informs the referee on the pitch about the decision."
How will it work?
"It's a camera-based system," Holzmuller explained. "We install 10 to 12 cameras inside the stadium underneath the roof. These cameras are following the players and tracking up to 29 data points at 50 times per second, and this data is then almost in real time processed and calculated by the software, by Artificial Intelligence, and this is sent automatically to the VAR and the replay operator.
"What we will have at the FIFA Arab Cup is a dedicated offside station where we have an assistant VAR sitting opposite the replay operator and then this can be immediately validated and confirmed."
It means the assistant VAR, or in domestic competitions the lead VAR, will be able to see almost instantly if a player is in an offside position. The VAR should be able to determine very quickly if this player is active and notify the refereeing team on the pitch, when the assistant can then raise the flag to stop play.
The only exception is when the VAR may need to assess whether a player has been interfering in play, such as being in the line of the goalkeeper's sight or interfering with an opponent.
Why does VAR offside need to change?
"VAR has had a very positive impact so far in football and we can say that the number of major mistakes are dramatically reduced," Pierluigi Collina, FIFA's chief refereeing officer, told FIFA's Living Football show. "But nevertheless there are areas where it might be improved, and certainly offside is one of them.
"We are aware that sometimes the process to check a possible offside takes too long, in particular when the offside to be assessed is very tight. And sometimes the accuracy with the position of the lines might not be 100%. For these reasons, FIFA is developing a technology which could offer faster and more accurate answers, and this is what is known as semi-automated offside."
So, what does this mean? Firstly, selecting the exact point the ball is touched by the passer cannot be determined accurately because of the frame rate of TV cameras used across all major leagues.
And there are other issues. The VAR manually selects the farthest forward point on both defender and attacker, which is inconsistent and even the same VAR could make a marginally different decision if calculating a second time. AI removes any subjectivity from the process.
Added to that, plotting players with 3D imaging on a 2D screen cannot be exact, while fans often simply do not accept the result due to the parallax (camera angle to the position of the players) on the 2D TV image.
The time taken to judge offside, in some cases in excess of five minutes for complex decisions, adds further frustration.
All in all, supporters don't really trust the process.
"The focus is always on two aspects," Holzmuller added. "The first one is the kick point so we hope that, with the help of technology, we can identify exactly the moment when the ball is played. And the second point is that we can identify which body part of the attacker or second last-defender is closest to the goal-line.
"We hope with the help of technology we can be more accurate and faster."
So, why does semi-automation make VAR better?
Well, it will:
- Remove the need for a delayed flag in many instances
- Provide a near-instant decision
- End most doubts about a goal being scored
Perhaps most importantly, this would mean the end of the delayed offside flag - for the most part. No more will you see play continue for an extended period, only for the flag to finally go up after the ball has entered the goal or the attacking move has ended. Offside decisions will be instant, in most cases the flag will be raised before a goal is scored. In any others, the decision should be so quick it would feel just like it used to be before VAR came into the game.
The only question comes when there are attacking players in close proximity to each other and the VAR has to recognise that the offside player is the one who becomes active. Will that produce a delayed flag? It's a question that, as this is still in the trial phase, no one really knows the answer to.
"Will semi-automated offside lead to a removal of the delayed flag for offside? The answer to that would be almost certainly yes," said David Elleray, technical director of lawmakers the IFAB. "It should remove the uncertainty that fans currently hate. Is he onside? Can I celebrate? Is it a goal?"
These factors could create a powerful change -- whereby a goal being disallowed by a noticeable VAR decision will be extremely rare. Goals will still be disallowed for offside through VAR, but the decision would take place in the background and fans shouldn't even notice it's there. Or at least that's the plan.
So, fans can celebrate goals again?
Even with the relaxing of VAR offside this season, in the Premier League one-third of the 48 VAR overturns have involved offside. And of the 16 goals disallowed, 10 have been for offside.
But that only scratches the surface. All goals and penalty decisions have had to be checked for offside. And that can lead to a long delay while a decision is made -- even if merely confirming a decision made on the pitch. That could be over.
Could we get back to a situation whereby the first thought in a fan's mind is no longer the fear of a goal being disallowed or subject to a lengthy check? With the new technology, that's the plan. No doubt fans will be sceptical.
"Semi-autonomous [semi-automated] offside would be a real step forward," said Mark Bullingham, CEO at the English Football Association. "Everyone recognises that the fan experience is negatively impacted by having to wait for the confirmation that a goal has been scored.
"If you have a scenario where you have semi-autonomous offside, where the assistant always knows whether players are offside, they can make an instant decision that doesn't need to be referred, that would be a step forwards. We're always looking to improve the fan experience."
But we're not going back to toenail offsides?
Let's hope not. Better technology will naturally be more precise, and fans already hate the marginal offside decisions. So a balance must be struck between technology and decision-making.
"It will spot all offsides, even smaller than the one we are spotting today with the current technology," Collina told an IFAB news conference in March. "So it would be more accurate, and ironically we would have more marginal offsides that could be detected. It's a matter related to the spirit of football."
The key phrase in Collina's quote is "that could be detected," as it doesn't mean the technology will be used to take VAR offside back to where it was. The VAR will be told precisely how far the attacking player is offside, down to the centimetre, so if parameters are in place there is no reason for the improved accuracy of decision making to bring back toenail offsides.
As another of FIFA's goals is to improve the visualisation of VAR offside, it seems unlikely it would want to revert to the previous system.
What can we expect at the FIFA Arab Cup?
This is the big one. For the first time, semi-automated VAR offside will be used to actually make decisions in live games. Previously, it has only been used in empty stadiums in test scenarios at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium and Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena, and also in the background at events such as the FIFA Club World Cup.
But now it's going live, and it's a crucial step to being officially approved and used at next year's World Cup.
FIFA will be able to learn just how accurate the system is, how reliable it is and any further improvements that are needed.
"We tested in several countries in Europe, in Germany and Spain and England," Holzmuller said. "We collected a lot of data and are working very closely with the MIT Sports Lab and with Victoria University in Melbourne, as well as ETH robotics in Zurich, to analyse this data and I'd say at the moment, we have a very good understanding of the quality of the technology and what can be achieved if you develop in further in the coming weeks and months."
Does that mean semi-automated offside is ready?
Not quite -- this is still officially a trial period, which is why it is being used at the FIFA Arab Cup in six World Cup stadiums.
Successful offline tests were held at the Club World Cup events in 2019 and 2021, but the development process has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
We're close, though, and after a further test at the Club World Cup in February next year it could be approved for full use following the IFAB's Annual General Meeting in March.
When will we see it in the Premier League?
It's going to take a bit longer for the domestic leagues to get the technology.
As it's being developed by FIFA, the World Cup will be the first place it is seen in a major competition. That means the Premier League, and other domestic competitions, are going to have to wait until the 2023-24 season before it arrives. That said, UEFA may be able to use it in the knockout rounds of European competitions like the Champions League next season.
Will VAR offside ever be fully automated?
Arsene Wenger, FIFA's chief of global football development, has said he wants the offside decision to go straight from the technology to the linesman, and cut out the VAR. But Collina has ruled that out.
"Goal-line technology clarifies black-and-white decisions as there is only the ball and the line, and for this reason it was quite easy to find a fully automated solution," Collina said. "In an offside incident, the decision is taken after having analysed not only the position of players, but also their involvement in the play.
"Technology, today or tomorrow, can draw a line but the assessment of interfering with play, or with an opponent, remains in referees' hands. The involvement of the referees in the assessment of offside remains crucial and final."