The Day Technology Died
By: G.M. Hancock
On January 4th, 2005, Pedro Mendes of Tottenham Hotspur spotted Manchester United’s goalkeeper Roy Carroll off his line and let fly an incredible strike from half way in the dying seconds of the Premiership game. The goalkeeper cycled back in a desperate attempt to clear the ball away but as everyone at that end of the pitch could see, he was clearly unsuccessful! The ball had crossed the line, but through tenacity and some sleight of hand, Carroll managed to scrape the ball out of the net. As neither the referee nor the referee’s assistant (the old-time linesman) was in a position to see the line, the goal was not awarded and the game finished all square cheating Spurs of two well-deserved points. This incident sparked an urgent call for the introduction of goal-line technology (GLT) into the modern game. The English Football Association (FA) responded by offering their “support for any move for goal-line technology”.
Another such controversy fueled the push for goal line-technology on May 3rd, 2005. The Champions League semi-final clash between Chelsea and Liverpool saw the ‘Reds’ striker Luis Garcia shoot from inside the box, only to have his effort cleared off the line by the ‘Blues’ William Gallas. Virtual replays show that the entire ball did not cross the line and therefore should not have counted. Yet count it did and Liverpool progressed to the next and final round of the most prestigious club competition in the world solely by virtue of this phantom goal. The fact that there exists a technology which might have averted these lapses only served to add insult to injury. Still, each event served to draw attention from governing bodies outside of England and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) instigated initial efforts to implement such technology. However, on March 7, 2010, five years after these proceedings with no progress towards its institution, FIFA delivered the killer blow to goal-line technology. A rapid and reprehensible decision was made by a very small, select set of individuals to effectively ban GLT and all future efforts to adopt it despite the extensive labor and monetary investment which was dedicated to its creation.
For those unfamiliar with GLT, it is a system whereby an electronic chip, located inside the football, is tracked by a computer system which by auditory or tactile signals to the referee can convey if and when the ball has passed completely over the line and thus represents a goal.
This system has been tested in football for a number of years now, however not at the elite level. Instead it has been put to the test in the U-17 Peruvian Championship and the 2007 World Club Championship. It seems odd that the multi-billion dollar industry of the most popular sport in the world would refuse to implement this tried and helpful tool. The present purpose is not to deliver a sermon or wag a scolding finger at those concerned, but rather to publicly pose a legitimate question. Why are we not taking advantage of this available technology?
FIFA, instead of implementing GLT, has chosen instead to consider adding two new officials to the roster, one behind each goal. This is not a viable, long-term solution. Regardless of the fact that this scenario merely increases the probability of human error (and see the officiating travesty of Reading v. Watford on September 20, 2008 for just how heartbreaking human error can be), the new net-tenders would not be positioned correctly to fulfill their appointed duty. The angle from behind the goal will prove just as frustratingly insufficient as that of the other officials. The net-tender would have to be positioned directly perpendicular to the goal-line and fairly close to the posts in order to truly observe disputed incidents.
This presents a number of significant issues. Firstly, new officials would be nonsensically situated which increases the chances of injury to both themselves and the players as any boom mike, security officer or unfortunately situated supporter can tell you. Secondly, this perspective would be useless in such a case as the Liverpool “goal” against Chelsea as Gallas cleared it off the line and his body would have obstructed the net tender’s view, rendering their input just as useless as the referee’s and the linesmen’s.
This is just one of the many arguments in favor of GLT over additional officials which include: accuracy, impartiality and its basis in science. As previously discussed, GLT would be better equipped than the officials to testify as to a goal’s status. The system is better qualified as it utilizes several cameras at different angles to determine its decision whereas humans are naturally limited to their eyes at one angle. GLT would also help to eliminate the ever-present factor of human bias. No matter how impartial a referee may claim to be, being human they are certainly swayed by outside influences whether or not they are aware of such manipulation. GLT technology has no stake in the game’s outcome (whether monetary or reputational); it has nothing to gain if one team wins or loses and so it is not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to any one side the way a referee might. Given the amazing talent of today’s international squads, sometimes the referee’s benefit of the doubt, rather than talent, is enough to change the whole game. Finally, GLT’s decision is based on physics and is therefore much more difficult to dispute than the official’s opinion.
The major arguments forwarded by those who oppose the adoption of this system are those of time, glitches and tradition. Naysayers claim the application of GLT during actual games will take too much time and prevent the smooth flow of play. This argument is erroneous as GLT can alert the referee via a tone or vibration almost instantaneously, as close to real time as possible. An additional concern is that glitches in the software can lead to controversial goals and decisions. This position is simply nonsensical for a number of reasons. Firstly, these decisions are already controversial which is the impetus driving this technology to begin with. Secondly, glitches in simple algorithm software of this variety would be extremely rare; far rarer than glitches in human officials’ perception anyway. Lastly, and most importantly, opponents to GLT claim that its adoption would be a break from the game’s glorious tradition and its implementation would lead to a new, warped version of the much-loved game. I do not agree that this technology would signify a break from tradition, but would rather be in keeping with the game’s tradition of change and evolution. The nature of the game is evolving in many ways. National leagues are more multi-cultural than ever, games are now streamed online in real time and the players’ gear is more advanced than any of the game’s founders could have dreamed of. Technology is a large part of this evolution, contributing to how the game is played and experienced. Technological advancements in sport-specific performance, safety and broadcasting have been embraced for years. Why then the hesitation to welcome new technology in officiating, the area of the game which is debatably the most in need of improvement?
It is well past time to reap the benefits of these efforts and I had eagerly looked forward to seeing what kind of fruit they bear. Specifically, as technology of this kind has had such great success in other sports such as tennis and swimming. HawkEye in tennis and mounted cameras on the pool floor for swimming have long provide useful input to the officials of these sports. I am, however, willing to concede that the application of these technological means does not eliminate the possibility of heated controversy. Recall the final of the Men’s 100 meter Butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Michael Phelps and Milorad Čavić touched the side of the pool at, what humans would perceive to be, the same time. However, due to pressure-sensitive plates in the pool wall and cameras attached to the bottom of the pool, it was determined that Phelps won by one one hundredth of a second. Therefore, even with technological support systems, people will still debate results. However, these systems (1) do provide us with data we did or would not have had and as a scientist I am hesitant to throw out or disregard any pertinent data and (2) are certainly more conclusive than if we had had another scuba-diving official strapped to the floor of the pool!
In soccer, however, any type of virtual replay or the use of “freeze frame” for the referee’s benefit during a match is strictly prohibited. Why so? The audience, managers and commentators all have access to these replays in order to enhance their understanding of the proceedings. Why not offer it to the officials, those who truly need it for their game-influencing decisions? And if we are to take this rule and interpret it to the letter, then technically referees should not have their headsets or be able to consult with their fellow officials. After all, hearing the incidents described by others could be considered an auditory “virtual replay.”
I sincerely believe, in terms of goal-line technology, that the pros significantly outweigh the cons in its adoption by the top flight. I am not a professional footballer. I am fortunate that my career does not hinge on the misinformed and occasionally erroneous decisions of officials. I am neither the fair weather friend nor the sunshine supporter; I am a die hard fan. And as a fan, I am truly tired of watching leagues in which Liverpool’s Champions League goal stands and yet Tottenham’s Premiership goal does not. More than one person’s career, livelihood and reputation depend upon results such as these, and I don’t believe that appeals such as this should be coming solely from fans like me. If anyone should be pushing for these advances in technology, it should be the officials themselves! Referees and their assistants may be threatened by these systems, thinking that their application would render them obsolete. However, a human adjudicator will always be necessary in soccer as machines are incapable of assessing intent, such as intent to harm or intent to handle the ball. Far being from replacing them, this system will instead provide the officials with more information with which they might perform better.
I must close by reiterating my disappointment. I am truly saddened that my beloved game is forced to take a step backward despite the significant amounts of effort, funds and time that were dedicated to developing this technology, simply because of the short-sighted decisions and self-serving motives of certain individuals in whose best interest it is to keep the game ambiguous for profit. I had such high hopes that this technology could prevent me from experiencing another loss of such a cheap variety. And to have such hopes dashed so swiftly and without widespread debate or consultation is just one more twist of the knife. Ned Ludd would be proud.