Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s stubbornly immovable president, has long resisted in-game technology to assist soccer referees. But after two more blown calls on Sunday threatened to overshadow the World Cup, he inched toward acknowledging what a worldwide audience could see for themselves: Soccer is ready for the 21st century.
England’s Frank Lampard was robbed of an obvious goal by
out-of-position officials in a loss to Germany. And Argentina’s Carlos Tevez scored an off-sides (read: illegal) goal that was allowed in a win over Mexico. Blatter apologized to the English and Mexican teams. “It would be nonsense not to reopen the file on goal-line
technology,” he told the media.
Here’s a sensible game plan — plus coaching from an innovator in goal line technology — for late-adopters Blatter and FIFA.
1. Go to the video.
MLB umpires use it to review controversial home runs. NBA officials rely on it to scrutinize three-point shots, goal-tending and buzzer beaters. NFL officials use it to review plays challenged by each team. Perhaps the NHL is the best model for soccer, given their shared concern over not disrupting the flow of the
game. It’s used for disputed goals, not off-sides calls.
“It’s the simplest solution in soccer for goal/no-goal,” says Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision, the industry
leader in providing digital extras, such as the virtual first-down marker, for broadcasters and sports leagues. By letting officials review broadcast video only, the same footage that fans see, he says, leagues promote transparency.
2. Rate the refs.
next step would be adding goal-line technology similar to the Hawkeye system used at Wimbledon. That, used in conjunction with video review, could be used to rate referees on their performance, much the same way Major League Baseball rates its
umpires against Sportsvision’s digital strike-zone. They get graded on every game and ranked for accuracy. “There was some resistance at first, but now umpires want to know their scores,” says Adams. “They use their scores to make the case that they should get playoff assignments.” They also use it in training new umpires and preparing to calls games against new pitchers like the
Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, to see how his pitches move through the zone.
3. Walk before you run.
There’s a new wave of instrumentation coming, with tiny RFID sensors embedded in balls, uniforms, and cleats, to track each athlete’s position on the field. Other leagues are experimenting. So should FIFA. “They have an
under-17 series,” says Adams. “They should try things out there before introducing it at the World Cup level.”
Eventually, he says, the sensors will help referees identify off-sides violations, an incredibly hard call to make in real time with lightning fast athletes. A monitoring system could alert officials as soon as a ball is kicked that an offensive player is out of position. After a quick whistle, the game would resume, and any delay could be made up for in overage. It might eliminate the sort brouhaha that erupted when the U.S. team’s potentially
game-winning goal against Slovenia was erased by a controversial call.
Ultimately, says Adams, the issue for Blatter and the heads
of other sports leagues is less about specific technology and more about embracing change. “The more successful these leagues are, the more pressure there is on the people running them not to mess up,” he says.
“They see their job is to preserve it, and part of that
balancing act is modernizing the game. Football and baseball are always tweaking things. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate fans. It usually takes a significant event, like these recent World Cup games, to change the inertia. FIFA must be holding its breath that they don’t have similar situations the rest of the tournament.”