If you have a memory longer than a goldfish you probably remember that, earlier in March, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) decided against the use of goal-line technology by referees to determine what exactly just happened on the field. This technology – which could theoretically have eliminated Thierry Henry’s handball, numerous penalty area dives, and most fractionally offside calls – was deemed by FIFA to be too cumbersome for use. What’s more, they didn’t just decide to stop using it now; they closed the door and decided to keep the game of football just the way it was. There was much hand-wringing, much aggravation, and then a couple of days later it was all over with…
…until today, when FIFA president Sepp Blatter decided to re-open the whole can of worms.
This is kind of an about-face for Blatter, who defended the decision a few days after it had been made. His original concerns were the concerns that always pop up: that the rhythm of the game would be disrupted, that the measure would prove too costly to introduce, and that you’d create different rules for lower leagues (that couldn’t afford the technology) than you had for higher leagues (that could).
Today, in an interview with CNN, Blatter got right down to business and changed his mind restated his opinion for the sake of clarity, saying now that he’d be in favor of goal line technology if it were “accurate and non-complicated”:
“If we have an absolute and accurate, non-complicated system then I would be in favor. But the current systems [on offer], with all respect to the companies [who have developed them], are complicated and not 100 percent accurate.”
The two systems he’s referring to are the Adidas “Cairo” system (aka “just put a chip in the ball”) and the “Hawkeye” system (aka “just put camera on the goal line”). It’s true that both of them have issues; what’s not true is how problematic those issues are.
All told, Blatter may have a point in regards to the Cairo system. Per Blatter, here are the issues:
“Speaking about the chip in the ball, which is the most accurate and I can say it works, but it is so complicated. The chip in the ball will create many problems with all manufacturers of the balls.
“[It] is an Adidas system and other manufacturers [need] to have the same rights to have access to this — this is a fundamental problem.
“You cannot use radio waves [to track the ball] because these are interrupted by circumstances, so you have to wire the whole field of play and I think this is too complicated.”
Right off the bat, there’s a real issue here that FIFA can’t just finesse around: if Adidas owns the system, Adidas is under no obligation to share that system with, say, Nike (who manufactures the balls for the Premier League and La Liga, amongst others). Adidas would probably allow Nike to use said technology, but they wouldn’t do that for free; that licensing price would instead be spread out over every ball that Nike sold, which would make the cost of running leagues that much more expensive.
As far as the radio wave thing, he’s probably right; you would need to wire the fields separately to avoid radio wave interference by all of the electronics inside a stadium. You’d probably also need to contend with the fact that for any given match there are multiple balls being used; how do you “activate” one and “deactivate” another easily? These aren’t world-ending types of issues, but they’re enough to be off-putting; the system clearly isn’t quite as simple as I’d personally thought it would be.
Which brings us to the Hawkeye system. Blatter had this to say on the issue of goalline cameras:
“Even the Hawkeye producer has to admit that even with seven cameras, if the ball is in a bunch of players, you cannot see whether the ball is in or out [of the goal].”
Which, to me, reads as “If your fancy schmancy cameras can’t see through people then what good are they?”
Ironically, this is exactly the same problem that the referee encounters on every single call. I’m no referee apologist, but we tend to forget that the referee’s angle is not always perfect and that there really isn’t a solution for that; this isn’t gridiron, where the official takes up a specific position (along with the fifteen other officials and a camera crew) pre-snap. Soccer’s chaotic; the ball moves faster than people do, and the referee may not be in the position to see everything at every moment. He’s often forced into either using his best judgement and making a call based on what he thinks happened or just not acknowledging an incident and playing on.
On top of that, FIFA’s positioning guidelines dictate that there’s almost never anyone on the goal line as it is. The referee’s assistant, if he’s doing it right, should always be level with the second defender back (to determine offside, which is an entirely different problem). The referee should run on a diagonal across from his assistants, but he usually doesn’t go to the goal line. Even on corners, there’s nobody standing right there. A camera (which could also be mounted ABOVE the goal, eliminating that pesky “people are opaque” problem) would simply add another perspective. I’m still not really seeing the problem.
One point that consistently keeps coming back up from Blatter in these conversations is the cost. He expounded on this idea after the initial decision:
”The application of modern technologies can be very costly, and therefore not applicable on a global level. The universality of the game: one of the main objectives of FIFA is to protect the universality of the game of association football.
”This means that the game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world. If you are coaching a group of teenagers in any small town around the world, they will be playing with the same rules as the professional players they see on TV.”
I agree with Blatter on this point; the game shouldn’t be fundamentally different when played in front of 500 people in Romania than when played in front of 90,000 at a World Cup final. Lower league matches simply can’t afford retrofitting their stadia for new tech; this isn’t the NFL or MLB, where there are only 30-some teams who are affected. It’s not an understatement to say that there are literally hundreds of thousands of teams playing in tournaments, and all of them play by the same rule sets; changing those rules does change the game.
The question that remains for me, however, is why a rule change even needs to be made. What matters to most fans is getting calls right; when the stakes are higher (such as at a World Cup or Champions League match), this becomes more important. FIFA’s stance on this issue should simply be to leave technology up to the local FAs and associations; don’t mandate it’s use, but don’t discount it. If UEFA wants to mandate using cameras in heavily televised Champions League games, than they should be able do that without FIFA’s interference (Fiorentina approves of this plan).
At the end of the day, Blatter seems to believe that he’s preserving the game; the problem is that everything around the game, including the technology, has evolved. FIFA’s business model – which raked in a record $1.06 billion last year – is built upon their games being exciting; goalline technology (and the associated replay system that could eventually follow) is needed to make sure that their games are also fair.
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Long, but illuminating discussion.