VAR football referee

2018 Fifa World Cup Russia: VAR and other technology, on and off the pitch

Image credit: Getty Images

Football is getting used to the idea of video assistant referees (VAR), yet teams are already using technology to help players keep their eye on the pitch as well as the ball.

Blaming the ref: it’s a unique footballing tradition that has, for decades, helped fans, players and managers save face whenever their team loses. This practice, however, could soon be consigned to the same scrapheap as tackles from behind, muddy pitches and Scottish participation at major tournaments. Thanks, that is, to Fifa’s decision to use video assistant referees (VAR) at the World Cup.

In Russia this summer, the referee - long lambasted as the footballing equivalent of Mr Magoo - will now be primarily the ‘on-field referee’. In a studio will sit another referee, the VAR, surrounded by screens that show replays from all cameras in the ground. The VAR can intervene if the on-field ref makes an error over a goal, a penalty award or non-award, a red card, or if a player has mistakenly been red-carded for an offence committed by another player. Away from the baying crowds, screaming coaches and nagging players, the VAR reviews the footage and, if necessary, advises the on-field ref to change the decision.

The intent is to reduce refereeing mistakes. It’s not easy, for instance, for a ref to see whether two players colliding is either a foul to one team or the other, just a collision, or a calculated dive – particularly if the referee has to look around the bodies of other players to get a decent view of the incident.

Despite this, almost everybody in football seems to disapprove of a VAR. It’s too slow and confusing and spoils the flow and excitement of the game.

While using technology to help match officials is a bad thing in the eyes of the footballing fraternity, using tech to help players better see what is going on around them certainly isn’t.

The very best footballers play like they have eyes in the back of their head – whether that’s picking out teammates with pinpoint passes or arriving in the right place at the right time to score or prevent a goal. Erez Morag, Nike’s former head of global research, believes that although some players are born with exceptional positional awareness and game intelligence, it is possible to teach this to those who are not.

Morag, who now runs visual performance specialists Accler8, explains that the speed of the modern game and the massive increases in the number of passes made in a typical match means players have less time to decide how to perform skills.

“How quickly a player sees a situation and how much they see is more important than ever,” Morag says. “How quickly they think and react can be the difference between them making a good play or a bad play.”

‘How quickly a player sees a situation and how much they see is more important than ever. How quickly they think and how fast they react can be the difference between them making a good play or a bad play.’

Erez Morag, Accler8

Acceler8 analysts test players in the lab for visual clarity, depth perception and peripheral vision. They also check how many targets a player can see when they raise their head, their hand-eye coordination and their eye and hand reaction time.

On the field, players then train with stroboscopic glasses. “When the player takes off the glasses and tries the same tasks, it’s like the game has slowed down,” Morag says. “The player now sees events quicker, sees more targets and can make better decisions.”

Elsewhere, tech experts are coming up with other ways of helping players develop spatial and positional awareness. Since May, the German national team has been trying out virtual-reality (VR) technology to improve decision making, positional awareness and reaction times. Using VR scenarios provided by Dutch company Beyond Sports, the player, wearing a headset, can see a computerised game situation from their position and through the virtual eyes of teammates in other positions.

This enables the player to better calculate what the other player needs, what that player sees in front of them, where and how they need the ball played to them to continue the team’s move, and to implement the team’s strategy. A bit like a snooker player who always thinks three shots ahead.

The Deutscher Fusball Bund (DFB), German football’s national governing body, is planning to use this technology for age group national teams when a new training centre opens in Frankfurt at the end of 2018.

M7 Virtual, a VR video production company based in Wales, wants to develop a VR system that uses human figures in real stadia, not cartoon graphics. Another company, Vitruvian Sport Systems, based in Canada, are seeking investors for their Zone 360 VR technology. Spanish start-up Soccerdream plans to use VR to help young players develop their skills. Its VR tech works through an HTC Hive headset.

Chen Shachar, the founder of Playsight Interactive – a sports video and analytics technology company offering its SmartCourt (or SmartPitch) platform across several sports - believes the sooner a player sees what has happened during a game or in training, the faster and better they progress.

SmartPitch uses a multi-angle 4K camera and HD video to provide live or recorded feedback of training sessions. The automated monitoring system tracks players and the ball and uploads the data to the cloud. The system also includes analytical tools and can link with other tracking and analytics devices and wearables – GPS vests and possibly, in the next few years, smart shoes and shirts. The first Playsight pitch was installed at German club TSG Hoffenheim last year.

“A player needs to see the whole pitch and follow the flow of the game,” Shachar says. “The technology must provide the whole panoramic view and also have a zoom-in capability.”

Dave Powderly, a coach at Charlton Athletic Football Club, believes it’s possible to get all of this using a drone. He explains that a drone’s-eye-view enables players and coaches to see more clearly a player’s position, potential space or danger areas. The drone, ideally a rain-proof model with a battery life of 45 minutes or more, “can hover over specific players or areas of the pitch. Formations and potential avenues of attack become clearer.”

Both the English and Dutch FA have shown an interest in Powderly’s work, as have Ajax and Barcelona. However, Mark Wynne, director of M7 Aerial, a drone-making company owned by former England striker Michael Owen, isn’t sure that training football club personnel to fly drones is commercially viable. “A mobile phone company might pay you £50,000 to take footage above a waterfall,” says Wynne. “But how much will you get from a football club for a 20-minute training session?”

According to David James, director of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University, it’s this kind of thinking that holds football back when it comes to technology.

“In Olympic sports like rowing and cycling, engineers and technology providers work with top coaches on designing technology that measures exactly what the coaches want and players need,” he says. “With football, it’s usually technology driven, where a company says here’s what we’ve made, it does this, now you use it.”

In football’s defence, James adds that with sports such as cycling, running and rowing, it’s easier to use technology to come up with the perfect model to improve performance. “These sports are quite deterministic,” he says. “Athletes put in a certain amount of power over a time period and the fastest person wins.”

A team sport, he explains, is more complicated. “There are so many interactions between the players that it is difficult to predict anything with any certainty. You’re also competing against an opposition. You’re not in control.”

James believes technology is more usefully employed in football to inform coaches about players’ workload and fitness levels. He explains it’s important to know whether a specific player is undertraining or overtraining before a match. “If a team is losing people through illness and injury, they haven’t got a chance,” he says.

In the past, it was typical for a footballer to be rushed back from an injury and suffer a similar, or associated, injury soon after. Remember Bryan Robson’s shoulder at the 1986 World Cup? Or Michael Owen’s knee in 2006?

Andy Harland, director of Loughborough University’s Sports Technology Institute, believes that if a team has the best technology in its medical setup, coaches can condition players in such a way that they are injured less frequently. “Medical staff will want to measure how injured a player is, or to spot injuries before the player displays symptoms,” he explains.

Football clubs and international teams tend to be reluctant to reveal how they go about this and what medical technology they use. Last year, Montcalm International – a healthcare equipment provider – lent one of their Minato QZ aquatiser dry hydro massage beds to an English Premier League Club for players to use before and after their physiotherapy sessions, but aren’t allowed to say which club. Another Premier League club is trialling a whole-body vibration system called Hypervibe, to see if it can help players recover after training as part of their warm down.

Last December, Sparta Science did announce it was providing Stoke City Football Club with a software platform that would help medical staff monitor injuries. The platform collects data from the player jumping on a force plate, a stationary platform that measures ground reaction forces. It then compares results with data taken from 10,000 athletes across a range of sports, giving insights into the player’s fitness levels. Stoke were 13th in the League when the deal was announced: they ended up bottom of the table at the end of the season.

There’s a force platform made by Force Decks in the recently refurbished gym at St George’s Park, where the England team trains. “The technology itself is not new, but we’re the first to integrate into the floor and wire it up to a television,” says Chris Scott, FA performance facilities officer at St George’s Park.

The FA is reluctant to give away too many technological secrets this close to a major tournament. However, they did mention some technology that Gareth Southgate’s staff will be using to monitor the England players’ fitness before they head out to Russia.

The Desmotec Range of Iso-Inertial devices, which use alternating concentric eccentric resistance, helps players improve strength, power, elasticity and neuro-muscular movement control. For balance, flexibility and core stability, they use TRX suspension trainers, and the Swift Speedlight timing and training system for acceleration, agility and speed. Hydrotherapy sessions take place in the HydroWorx 2000 Series pool, which has a moveable floor, an underwater treadmill, resistance jet technology, and computer and camera systems.

These players, of course, would have been getting similar health and fitness screening from their clubs throughout the season, but Sheffield Hallam University’s James thinks football could learn from how other sports monitor players’ behaviour away from sport. “How well they’re sleeping, their stress levels,” he says.

James also believes that applying skeletal models to moving 2D pictures of players might help prevent injury and enhance performance by improving biomechanical analysis of the player’s technique. “The centre of mass of a player, the angle of their leg and their foot as it hits the ground,” he says.

M7 Aerial’s Wynne imagines a time when VR can help coaches unpick and players emulate the techniques of the game’s superstars – a Messi dribble, a Neuer save, even a Ronaldo bicycle kick.

Charlton Athletic’s Powderly sees drones one day being used with algorithms to automatically track players and record the number of shots, crosses and passes they make. Harland, of Loughborough University, would like to see more biomechanists, human growth development experts and biologists working with technology providers to figure out a more effective talent identification process. While Acceler8’s Morag believes that, with training, it’s possible to improve visual performance between 20 and 30 per cent over a season.

How about visual performance training for referees instead of VAR? That way, they’d get more decisions right while we’d still have someone to moan at when our team loses and there would still be an outside chance we’d benefit from a dodgy decision ourselves.

What can football learn from other sports?

VAR technology

The video assistant referee (VAR) must be a senior referee who understands the technology, what they’re looking for, why, and how they’ll find it.

In cricket, tennis and rugby, the TV umpire gives a running commentary on what he’s doing throughout the checking process. What the umpire sees, the crowd in the ground sees via a big screen, as do TV viewers. That way, everyone understands what is going on and can get involved with the tension and excitement as the decision is being made.

Even with video replays it’s not possible to get every decision right, particularly with a moving game like football. The VAR is there to reduce the number of mistakes and eradicate the shockers. It’s not there to provide 100 per cent accuracy.

Every sport that uses technology to review decisions experienced difficulties at first and, as a result, went about changing what didn’t work until it worked better.

In cricket, for example, the on-field captain or the batsman given out can call for a replay. In the NFL, it’s the coach. They only have a certain number of calls. If they get it wrong in cricket they lose their appeal, or, in NFL, a time out. This way, players and coaches have to learn how the system works and, as a result, there is less confusion and resistance.

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