Technology is everywhere in soccer. From hi-tech fabrics, divot-defying cleats, and dynamic new ball technology, sports firms such as Adidas and Nike are constantly pushing the boundaries for new and innovative products. And the matches you see on TV are the best yet, with FIFA, who owns the television rights, sticking cameras everywhere they can possibly stick them so that TV spectators can enjoy the hits—and misses—from every conceivable angle.
There is, however, one blind spot. And perhaps it is where the game needs it most: on the goal line. And on Sunday morning, at approximately 10.38 EST [Ed: And at least once in every U.S. match], we had glaring proof that FIFA needs to move with the times and start using technology as a fifth pair of eyes. On Saturday the footballing body's secretary general, Jerome Valcke, stated that the next World Cup might well have an extra pair of assistant referees, one behind each goal, "to have more eyes helping [the referee] to make decisions."
The decision to disallow Frank Lampard's goal may or may not have been disastrous for England (let's face it, they haven't exactly been excelling at the beautiful game in South Africa), but the U.S. had their third goal ruled out in their match against Slovenia. So why is FIFA being such a bunch of Luddites on the situation?
Update: Following the linesman's error in last night's Argentina-Mexico match, when Carlos Tevez's blatantly offside goal was given, the replay of the incident on the big screens in the stadium fueled, says ESPN soccernet, arguments on the pitch. FIFA has now decided to suspend the replays, so that the players don't get into any more argy-bargy, saying that replaying the incident was "a clear mistake." A spokesman for South Africa's organizing committee said. "In retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been shown. It was shown, and unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that."
[Ed: Yes there is.]
FIFA: rewriting history, one cock-up at a time.
Other games, such as tennis, cricket and snooker, all use Hawk-Eye technology. It consists of a minimum of four high-speed video cameras dotted around the sports arena and, based on the principles of triangulation, calculates the 3-D position of the ball in each frame of the camera. It is not without its critics, who claim that the systems's statistical margin of error is too small. Hawk-Eye has been proposed for use in Football, but as yet, FIFA seems unwilling to take the idea up.
Another idea is Cairos goal-line technology, a hook up between Adidas and tech firm Cairos. It consists of bathing the front and back of the goal area in magnetic radiation. When the ball, which has a sensor built into it, crosses the line, a watch on the referee's wrist indicates whether it's a goal or not. You can see a simple explanation of it here.
FIFA's train of thought is that the rules of football should be the same everywhere it is played, from the different leagues in each country, to pub teams having a Sunday morning kickabout. But spectators of matches worldwide get the benefit of replays and virtual goal line technology. And, according to sports journalist James Mason, FIFA's reasoning is pointless. "Anyone who plays football on a Saturday or Sunday on Hackney Marshes, well, we don't have a linesman—and sometimes we don't even have a referee. So it is different. At the higher levels, there is so much money involved now the technology should be introduced."
Back in March of this year, the football world waited to find out just what FIFA's stance on using technology at the forthcoming World Cup. This was part of their statement. "No matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else? It is often the case that, even after a slow-motion replay, ten different experts will have ten different opinions on what the decision should have been."
That doesn't even address the issue. FIFA also pontificated on improving the quality of refereeing and mused about just how technology might change the game. "IF the IFAB (International Football Association Board) had approved goal-line technology, what would prevent the approval of technology for other aspects of the game? Every decision in every area of the pitch would soon be questioned." Clearly they're scared of Japan being the first nation to field a 23-robot squad for the 2030 World Cup (to be held on the moon).
The referee must make the decision on what they see or don't see at the time—but, judging by the Uruguayan linesman's reaction when he saw the replay yesterday—it's possible that they may be petitioning FIFA for a change sooner rather than later. Given that dodgy decisions from match officials have led to death threats against some referees, which led to the early retirement of Anders Frisk after a Champions League match, and a Facebook campaign against Tom Henning Ovrebo four years later, it may be a welcome move.
Unsurprisingly, FIFA is keeping very quiet on the matter. They do have a point that having to stop the match while officials pore over a video screen will slow the game down to a point where both players and spectators may lose out. However, when all the fuss over the 2010 World Cup has died down—the disallowed goals, the goals that stood when they shouldn't have, the play-acting of the sportsmen—if you want to go back to the 2006 tournament, the three yellow cards—when it's all quiet again, FIFA should start an investigation into using technology. And next time, draw a different conclusion.
Update 2: Sepp Blatter has gone on to apologize to both England and Mexico (although he didn't have the Jabulanis to do it in person) and has said that FIFA will look into the technology issue again next month. "It is obvious that after the experiences so far at this World Cup, it would be a nonsense not to open the file on goal-line technology," he said. "I apologized to England and Mexico. The English said thank you and accepted that you can win some and you lose some, and the Mexicans bowed their head and accepted it."
The FIFA president also said that the organization would be launching a new drive to improve refereeing standards. "We will come out with a new model in November on how to improve high-level referees. We will start with a new concept of how to improve match control. I cannot disclose more of what we are doing but something has to be changed."
Sepp Blatter, handy on his feet in a crisis, not so good at other times.