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FIFA is bringing AI to Seattle – and the World Cup

  • Hope Reese

Seattle’s a host site for the 2026 World Cup, and it will get a front row seat to new tech.

In July 2022, FIFA announced that it would be turning to artificial intelligence to help make better offside calls. And now Seattle, which has recently been named a host site for the FIFA 2026 World Cup—the first time the World Cup has been hosted in the US since 1994—will get to try out this new AI on the soccer field.

Offside calls—in which it is judged whether any part of a player is on the other half of the field—are notoriously difficult in soccer. But they’re also involved in nearly every goal and every penalty.

According to FIFA, the AI, (also called Video Assisted Referees, or VAR), will monitor a player’s actions and send an alert to the video referees if a player is offside, with the aim of more quickly making these decisions.

According to an NPR interview with ESPN FC editor Dale Johnson, “the player that scores, or the player who touches the ball, must have three defensive players in front of him when the ball’s played.” So if you mess up the offside decision, Johnson says, it can put players at an advantage, and potentially lead to goals that were not fair.

The biggest difference, according to Johnson, will be the speed of the decisions. While they typically take 70 seconds, the new technology could bring it down to 25 seconds.

The use of VAR is one of several new AI-assistants in soccer in recent years. For instance, AI can display a 3D animation showing if the soccer ball has crossed the goal line.

Seattle has been selected as one of 16 cities across North America—among other cities in Seattle’s West Region are Vancouver, B.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Guadalajara, Mexico—as a host for the 2026 World Cup. It’s not a surprise, as Seattle has been known as a leader in the sport, with its recent Seattle Sounders FC winning the MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019. The Sounders won the Concacaf Champions League in May 2022, and with these wins has also attracted a significant following.

“Seattle brings a passionate fan base, world class facilities, and a community committed to hosting fans to a memory-making experience,” said Beth Knox, Seattle Sports Commission president and CEO, in a statement tweeted by SEA 2026. Regional tech leaders, like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and tech entrepreneur Adrian Hanauer, are also among the owners of the Sounders group that was announced in 2019.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino recently dubbed the World Cup the “biggest show on Earth,” with 5 or 6 billion people tuning in across the globe—and now, instead of yelling at the ump, they’ll have to turn their anger towards a machine.