• Alastair Blair

Will robots replace linesmen?

With the announcement today that the World Cup will see the use of technology to help with offside decisions, some people think this may lead to the end of the Assistant Referee's role. In my new book on Scottish refereeing and Scotland's impact on the changing laws of the game, out now on Amazon, I explain how this has been some years in the making...as this excerpt shows.




"Technology can, and I believe will, play an increasing role in football in the years to come. Given that nerdy techies are already building the metaverse, where the digital and real worlds will fuse into one, and that this is expected to be working within 10-15 years (if not sooner), who can doubt that these same people could easily apply their intellectual horsepower to something relatively simple, like making an offside decision?


The fact is they are already doing so. It is generally agreed that if a tech story (say driverless cars) makes it to the mainstream media then that technology has already been worked on for many years and is at or close to fruition. In May 2021, the Daily Mail (and others) reported that the English Football League had, in October 2019, explored “the use of limb-tracking technology to provide instant calls on offsides.” The 2021 article went on to say that “The system has undergone a successful trial at a Premier League club for the last year, and four teams - Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United - will have it in place next season (and moreover) the system could be fully operational as soon as 2023.”


This 'skeletal player tracking system', has been developed by HawkEye – the same people who provide the goal-line technology that has proved such a success. Moreover, HawkEye has been used for many years in other sports, notably cricket and tennis, and in the latter is the ultimate arbiter of whether a ball is in or out – that is whether it has bounced on or over a line on the court. It’s not hard to see how this could be adapted for the ball being in or out of play around the touchlines of a football pitch. If we get to the point where offsides and the ball in or out of play are controlled by technology, with – crucially - the result being available almost instantly, a large part of the job of the linesman/Assistant Referee will have been dispensed with and their roles will change considerably. It’s not hard to see the benefit of this. For a start, all those occasions where the fans at the side of the ground hurl abuse because they think the ball has crossed the line for a throw-in but the linesman believes it hasn’t, will by and large disappear.


Of course, it will be said that there is more to offside than simply looking along the line and therefore humans will still be needed to see if a forward is interfering with play or if the ball was last touched by an opponent. However, if one thinks about the way technology has already evolved it’s clear that these are not insurmountable obstacles. Billions are being spent developing driverless vehicles that have instantly to take into account potential movement of other cars, changing traffic lights, the idiocy of pedestrians and unfortunate stray dogs, to say nothing of reacting to adverse weather conditions. Offside may be complicated, but it’s nothing compared to a driverless car making a safe passage through central Edinburgh as the Scottish weather demonstrates its well-known tendency to give us four seasons in one day. People, especially football officials, may not like the prospect of being made redundant by technology, but it’s been happening since the days of the Luddites - and they didn’t manage to stop it either. Does anyone really think that it will be impossible to produce technological aids which can deal with the vagaries of the offside law?


Of course, just because something is possible doesn’t mean it has to happen (of which more presently). There are still many other things Assistant refs do that are necessary (checking nets, checking boots and other equipment, watching for fouls, separating fighting players, etc.), but offsides and the ball in or out of play are two of the more essential ones. A radical re-think is (hopefully) going on right now and if it’s not then it should be. Amongst the questions that should be being asked is whether we might eventually see robots run the line. I would be very much against this, but it’s perfectly possible that it may happen, with a new role subsequently being introduced for some other form of referee’s assistant. The current refereeing hierarchy would, understandably be against this too, but part of their problem might be that the same arguments that would hold for HawkEye and robot linesmen also hold for VAR - namely that it would help reduce errors. Would they be happy to have a reduction in errors and also a reduction in the number of officials controlling a match? I rather suspect not, but what’s sauce for the goose…?"

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