How the World Cup Is Putting the Power of A.I. on Display

Ecuador's Enner Valencia scores a later-disallowed goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar match between Qatar and Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. Photo: Getty Images.

New artificial intelligence tracking systems aim to make the game fairer–and provide inspiration for entrepreneurs in the audience.

Soccer, the simplest of sports, has revealed its technological makeover. Quite apart from the political and humanitarian controversies unfolding at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, tech is making headlines on the field of play itself.

Just three minutes into the opening match last Sunday, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia thought he had scored the quickest goal in World Cup history, against host team Qatar. But his goal was voided for being offsides after review through a network of cameras, algorithms, and a sensor in the ball itself that broadcasts real time data on its precise position.

And while normal people are debating what effect the tech is having on the purity of the sport, the founders and entrepreneurs in the audience are taking inspiration about how they might implement artificial intelligence into their businesses.

Algorithms and data began to make their way into soccer at the 2018 World Cup, when video assistant referees (VARs) were introduced. Specially trained officials watch the matches on various screens from all angles and check every decision made by the refs. If they determine the ref made a bad call, they have the power to overturn the decision. The 2022 tournament introduces semi-automated offside technology, which is what tripped up Valencia. FIFA says it’s intended to support on-field officials and video officials to efficiently make calls by automatically determining the relative position of the key players at the exact moment the ball is played.

In collaboration with Adidas and FIFA’s own internal technology innovation group, the association crafted a system in which 12 cameras are mounted underneath the roof of the stadium to continuously track both the ball and each individual player on the field in order to instantaneously tell when the ball or the player have moved out of bounds.

First, these cameras identify and track each player’s head and limbs, then all the data is processed in real time by an AI, which triggers an alert if it determines that one of the players is offsides. Once a decision has been made by the AI, it creates a brief animation using the data to visually illustrate to viewers at home why the call was made.

In addition to the cameras, the ball itself has had a tech makeover. The official ball of the tournament, the Adidas Al Rihla Pro, has been outfitted with “connected ball technology.” A motion sensor that measures inertia is embedded within the ball, which sends real time data on the ball’s position to the VAR team at a rate of 500 times per-second.

That’s the tech that voided Valencia’s goal. In the end, though, the tech proved to be no match for his skill. He scored two more goals, and Ecuador won the opening match 2-0.