TEHRAN - Whether it is 11 players on a pitch or four football playing robots, Germans often win - but it was Iran who triumphed in the RoboCup in Tehran at the weekend.

In a spectacle that could be considered a laughable distraction if not so much work was involved, the annual event drew international competitors who see the tournament as a test laboratory for human robotics.

On green felt carpet five teams - three German, one Dutch and one Iranian - competed in the RoboCup’s 9th edition, with the robots strutting their stuff in two 10-minute halves, trying to prod a red ball into the back of their opponent’s net. At just 60 centimetres (24 inches) tall, the key factor in the matches was that unlike simple everyday electronic games the robot team is programmed ahead of kick-off.

‘The robots are completely autonomous - we don’t have any control on the game and they take their own decisions,’ said Novin Sharhoudi, 20, a student of software and computer engineering at Qasvin Azad University, northwest of Tehran. And unlike professional sport in which money can buy the best players and influence outcomes, all the RoboCup teams used identical machines designed by Aldebaran Robotics, a French company that also provided raw technical data for the programmers.

‘We process the data to improve locomotion, perception of the infrastructure and behaviour,’ said Sharhoudi, referring to how and when the robots move, kick the ball and interact with team mates across a playing surface six metres long and three metres wide.

Each robot is equipped with two cameras - one on its head and one on its chin - with which it views the ball and communicates with team mates via wireless networking. Despite victory for the local MRL (Mechatronics Research Laboratories) team, there was talk of a not completely level playing field, given that daily life is still heavily clouded by international sanctions imposed on Iran as punishment for its disputed nuclear programme. ‘We don’t get all the upgrades, we can’t buy robots or some components and the company was not in Tehran during the event so we can’t repair the robots,’ said Sharhoudi.

And just as in the beautiful game itself, no plan survives the opening whistle. Jonas Mende, of team HTWK from Leipzig, Germany, saw his robots bump into each other and their opponents, falling over and requiring ‘time out’ on the sidelines before a return to action. Mende was also surprised about the improvements made by the MRL team. ‘Iranians have made good progress since last year. We are now on the same level and they are our main opponents,’ he said, noting how the MRL team’s weekend victory came after a third place finish behind world champions Bremen and Leipzig at a recent tournament in Germany.

But for professionals who take part in RoboCup, the football tournament is just one activity that can benefit their research and lead to better design and movement in future software programs. ‘They develop lots of skills that can be used in other areas,’ said Patrick de Kok, of the NAO Dutch team who took part in Tehran. ‘Finding a ball is not only for soccer but can help to find a specific target during rescue operations,’ he added, referring to searches of contaminated and dangerous places.