Automated offside is here, and it’s pretty damn cool

Robot-officiated VAR is the future, so get used to it

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Finally, a computer will save us from arguing about whether someone was on or offsides.
Finally, a computer will save us from arguing about whether someone was on or offsides.
Screenshot: Club World Cup

Even through its many, many bumps and hiccups (the kind of hiccups where you feel like you’ve pulled an oblique) I have been pro-VAR. It is hardly perfect, and far too much of it still depends on the whims and judgements of people. Except now being in the hands of whatever is floating between one person’s ears, we’re now at two — the VAR official and the ref on the field. Let’s go back a couple weeks to this and realize that two people had to think this was a penalty for it to farcically become so. Two.

So yeah, far from perfect. Anything that depends on people always will be, especially when it involves opinions. And that’s still what refereeing is, no matter how clearly you try to lay something out in a rulebook.

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Still, to me VAR is progress, and what it saves is worth the cost. The goal ruled out when a player is yards onside being overturned is a good thing, and that still happens. Getting rid of the egregiously blown call is still a good, even if it feels like the most elementary stuff. It will take time to clear out the sludge around that.

Offside has been maybe the most frustrating portion of the VAR revolution. Not because it gets things wrong or right, but just how long it takes. Yeah, there’s the dejection of celebrating a goal — the most cataclysmic moment in sports — and watching it wiped out. People seem to forget about the goals that are awarded after an offside call balancing this somewhat, but the focus is always on the negative. And it led to the awkward play when a linesman can’t really flag a marginal call until there’s a pause in play so that VAR can get involved if it needs to. Again, it’s bumpy, but it’s progress.

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But it’s the standing around we all hate the most. We watch the lines on our TV being set, and we’re never sure if they’ve gotten that right. Is it the knee or the shoulder of the last defender it should be set at? Is this angle in the stadium really the best? And what about that fullback looking for his contact lens on the other side? Isn’t he the last defender?

And it can take forever, and we can only imagine what it’s like for those in the stadium who can’t watch along. By the end of it you don’t even care if the goal counts or not, you just want it to be over. The last thing we want is for this to feel interminable.

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Well, at this week’s Club World Cup, our salvation may be born. Automated offside VAR is in effect, and it’s dope as fuck:

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Dale Johnson explains the whole thing in that thread, and there’s an example from earlier in the tournament to illustrate. Basically, it works like goal-line technology. Cameras around the stadium create an AI version of the match, capturing various data points on every player 50 times a second. With that info, they can position the players at any moment, and from any angle, to see whether they were offsides or not. This kind of tech’s future use is dizzying, for analysis and scouting and whatever else, but this is the immediate.

The thought that we could have these decisions in a matter of seconds, which is basically when we realized an assistant was raising their flag after a goal in the before-times anyway, feels like manna from heaven. We won’t feel a pause or worse. The flow of the game will continue.

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That doesn’t mean it will be perfect, and the problems arise in the things we can’t predict. Even goal-line technology, as universally lauded as it has been, missed a crucial goal against Aston Villa in 2020 because players bodies just happened to be positioned in a way to block the cameras. You couldn’t replicate that or predict it. That disallowed goal kept Villa in the Premier League, and it’s a real study to figure out what would have happened to them, Bournemouth (who would have stayed up), and a host of individuals. These calls have deep and far repercussions. Should a camera blip out during a World Cup semifinal…well, let’s not think about it.

But the actual tech itself is fascinating. And it leads to the question of if this is possible — tracking 22 moving bodies and a moving ball that can be looked at from any angle within seconds, why am I watching some altacocker side judge trying to figure out what’s a first down or not? If it takes seconds, why is it not possible to radio down and tell the refs exactly where the ball should be, and where the marker should be?

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Why do I still have to suffer through whatever deluded concept Angel Hernandez or Larry Vanover have of the strike zone when we could just map it out? And that doesn’t even move! There are several experts who will tell you that automated strike zone technology just isn’t there yet. Well, watch this automated offside and ask them why isn’t it? Or why do NHL fans have to watch two linesmen hunch over a Nintendo Switch to watch blue-line cameras that have all the quality of homemade porn in the garage to figure out if a skate was over the line or not? The answer is right here.

At least MLB, in maybe the only right thing it has done lately, is moving towards this, using it in the minors to iron it out. The NFL doesn’t have such a testing lab environment, but surely there’s a better way. The NHL should as well.

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I know the answers lie with something like, “The leagues don’t want to pay for it.” That’s always the answer. Not like they can’t afford it. FIFA didn’t need this either, but spent on it with its considerable coffers. If a lumbering idiocy like FIFA can be arsed, what’s the NFL’s excuse?

There will be those who still cling to “the human element!” But ask them to define that, and they can’t. It’s a loose allusion/grasp to a time that’s gone, and a fear of technology. What they’re saying is they like mistakes. But mistakes should come from the players and coaches. The games’ arbiters should be as perfect as we can get them to give the most balanced playing field. Yes, Don Dekinger and Kerry Fraser live in infamy and are some of the most legendary stories of those leagues. That doesn’t mean they need to be repeated. They should be a marker of how far our officiating has come.

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