The global sports bonanza has started. Millions are tuning in at home, and others are braving the heat to watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in person.
Technology can’t solve it all, but will be part of the answer. Officials are relying on sophisticated tools to control almost every aspect of the games: from the soccer balls being kicked around to the thousands of cameras tracking fans’ and players’ nearly every move, bringing intrigue and concern.
Here’s a look at the innovations being used.
Sensor soccer ball
The official match ball, made by Adidas, will have motion sensors inside. The sensor will report precise location data on the ball 500 times per second, according to the company, helping referees make more precise calls.
The sensor-filled ball was road-tested at several soccer tournaments leading up to the main event, including the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup, and did not affect player performance, Adidas said.
The ball will be used in all of the tournament’s 64 matches, and will feed information back to a data nerve center, which officials can use to track statistics and monitor game play.
Video Assistant Referees
A staple of watching any soccer match is complaining about the calls.
But in this tournament, officials will try to minimize the controversy by using video assistant referees, which use algorithms and data points to help on-field referees make accurate calls, FIFA officials said.
The technology was tested in the 2018 World Cup, and has gotten enhancements for this year’s games.
The system will rely on tracking cameras mounted underneath stadium roofs to track the sensor-filled ball and up to 29 data points on each player’s body, at 50 times per second, FIFA officials added.
The data points tracking players’ limbs and ball location will be fed into an artificial intelligence system, helping referees make accurate calls on penalties, such as who is offside.
An automated alert will ping match officials inside a video operation room, who will then validate the decision before informing the referee, they said.
The heat was always going to be an issue. Though not scorching summer temperatures, temperatures in Qatar could get stiflingly hot during the next month.
Officials are relying on an advanced cooling system. According to FIFA, it is designed by a Qatari professor, Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, who is often called “Dr. Cool.” Air is drawn into pipes and vents in the stadium, cooled, filtered and pushed out again. It will create a cool bubble inside the stadium, where sensors will help regulate temperatures, game officials told news outlets.
Using insulation and a tech-fueled method called “spot cooling” — which allows cooling to take place only where people are — stadiums will be kept between 64 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cameras and algorithms
Command and control centers in Qatar will rely on more than 15,000 cameras to track people’s movements throughout the games, Qatari officials told Agence France-Presse in August.
The cameras will be spread among all eight stadiums. In Lusail Stadium, which holds more than 80,000 people and where the final match will be held, facial recognition technology will be used to track fans, according to Al Jazeera, which has generated concerns over privacy.
In addition, algorithms will be used to try to prevent stampedes in the stadium, such as the one at a soccer match in Indonesia last month that killed more than 130 people, news reports indicate.
The command-and-control team, news reports said, will be able to forecast crowd patterns using algorithms that rely on several data points, including ticket sales, and places where people enter.
Who will win?
The Alan Turing Institute in Britain has created an algorithm to predict which team is most likely to win the World Cup.
Their algorithm is based on a previous one they used called AIrsenal, which they developed in 2018 to play Fantasy Premier League, institute officials said.
They relied on a data set from GitHub, a website for sharing and collaborating on computer code, which tracked the results of every international soccer match since 1872, they said. Their model gave more weight to World Cup matches and games played recently.
They ran the model 100,000 times.
The results, according to the institute: Brazil won the tournament in roughly 25 percent of the simulations; Belgium came out the victor roughly 18 percent of the time; Argentina came out on top at a little under 15 percent.