Robotics at the FIFA World Cup: Cutting edge or bleeding edge?

The conclusion of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is upon us, a tournament which has been studded with controversies ever since it was awarded in 2010, but few expected the streak of controversies to continue onto the pitch during the tournament itself. Since the beginning of the tournament, the newest edition of the Video assistant referee (VAR) has sparked many debates and divided fans all over the world. So, what’s causing the controversy? Enhanced offside detection technology. For those unfamiliar with the term, in the game of football, an offensive player may not cross the most rearward defensive line before the ball is played to them. In essence, an attacking player must remain behind or at the same level of the pitch as the last opponent at the time of the ball being passed to them by their teammate. If they don’t, then the attack is offside and the ball is deemed out of play. Simple to enforce right? Enter enhanced VAR with millimetre precision.


For the first time in the tournament’s history a dozen special tracking cameras have been installed around the stadiums that track the ball and up to 29 data points at 50 fps to construct the pose of all 22 players on the field, not a single limb is missed! It makes for some pretty nifty 3D reconstructions for the viewers. The ball itself contains an inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensor, it even has to be charged! There’s even a special system that detects which ball is in play, and therefore which ball’s data to use.

The adidas ‘Al Rihla’ (The dream in Arabic) football being charged. It’s said that the charge lasts for six hours of active use. Source: Daily mail

Before you implement millimetre precision, you need to define millimetre boundaries. That’s where the controversy begins.  A shoulder being 1 cm offside would not constitute an offside play in the past, as it could never be constituted by the linesman or the old VAR. Today it is, and boy has it changed the outcome of the tournament. The world cup dreams of some teams may arguably have been shattered by it and on the flipside some teams may even be thanking its existence for their success. 

3D reconstruction of an offside call by VAR in the Croatia vs Belgium match Source: NPO

Try and spot where the Croatian player’s (in white) shoulder is beyond the Belgian player’s (in red). Hard, isn’t it? As a result Croatia was disallowed a penalty and the game ended in a draw, one cannot help wondering what could’ve been for Croatia if the enhanced VAR didn’t exist, a different path in the knockouts perhaps? The decision is correct, but is it in the spirit of the game? Many fans don’t think so.


Another unexpected use of the new technology has been to determine whether a goal could be attributed to Cristiano Ronaldo. The ball in the shot below has originated from a pass from fellow teammate Bruno Fernandes, and fans debated with several camera angles whether Ronaldo heads it before it goes into the goal. Adidas confirmed that the ball’s sensor did not register any force applied at the time of supposed impact, ending the jocular debate, the data doesn’t lie.

The technology has given an extra layer of validity in the highest level of the sport, and as all decisions made by the VAR have been correct there is no discussion of it’s reliability. Perhaps it’s a question of getting used to such fine margins, a player is no longer safe from the subjective vision of the linesman or the shortcomings of the old VAR, they must accept that even the tiniest of movements can jeopardise their attacks.

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