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2014 World Cup: The Long, Turbulent Journey of Goal-Line Technology

by Brandon Russell | June 8, 2014June 8, 2014 8:00 am PDT

Every sane football fan will tell you the ball crossed the line—by a yard at least—because it’s the truth. Even my drunk neighbor, who at the time was barely able to keep himself upright, saw that England was denied a clear goal. The entire world knew it; the commentators, the crowd, the players. Everyone except the FIFA appointed match officials overseeing the game, who completely and utterly failed to do their job; as though the Football Gods surreptitiously pulled blindfolds over their eyes. It didn’t take advanced camera technology to see Frank Lampard’s chipped shot against Germany bounce off the cross bar and past the goal line.

The injustice was shocking, and greatly affected the complexion of the game. Down 2-1, England had all the momentum with Germany pinned in their own half, and a goal would have leveled things at 2-2; the incident occurred at a crucial point, too, just before half time. But instead of being awarded a goal, the decision proved to be a decisive moment in the overall match. England, demoralized, pressed for an equalizer the entire second half, but the German resistance was too great, and eventually the game ended 4-1 in Germany’s favor.

It was a devastating loss given the circumstances, and it happened in a knockout round no less. But it was even more embarrassing for FIFA, which before then repeatedly objected to goal-line technology. Yet, on the biggest imaginable stage, FIFA and its governing body was presented with clear evidence that something needed to change—and fast. To be fair to the officials, the game moved so quickly, and the ball bounced in such a way, that it would have been difficult to spot by the mortal eyes of a referee. Still, the incident lead to an overwhelming outcry from fans, coaches and players. The ball crossed the line. It was time to implement goal-line technology.

Football’s Staunch Resistance To Change

There’s always resistance to change. From silent movies to talkies; from segregation to integration. FIFA (and UEFA), an ancient ideal established in the early oughts of football, has largely remained the same during its 110-year existence. As a result, the association is often seen as nothing more than a bad joke, a corrupt political power that merely feigns governance. Just a bunch of curmudgeons hungry for money and little else. They’re dinosaurs blindly roaming a pitch with players who are more athletic and technical than they’ve ever been. I’m surprised matches are even televised. Keep the game simple, they say.

As Michel Platini, president of UEFA and former player once put it, incidents like the one in England vs. Germany happen “once in a blue moon.” Platini, incidentally, also once said goal-line technology in the modern game would lead to “PlayStation football.” It hasn’t. He said this even after FIFA was putting plans into motion following Lampard’s ghost goal in the 2010 World Cup. Even another high-profile incident, when England’s John Terry hooked a clear goal from behind the line against Ukraine in 2012, hasn’t been enough to convince him.

But what Platini fails to realize is that those incidents have big, lasting implications, even if they are rare. Take the World Cup final in 1966 between, coincidentally, England and Germany: a similar situation arose, and England wound up the beneficiary—England’s Geoff Hurst “scored” the go-ahead goal in extra time, and England went on to win 4-2. (Some people say the 2010 incident was retribution.) That’s just one example. On the club level, these situations occur more frequently than people realize, and it has become more and more clear that match officials, who are only human, cannot always be relied upon to make an accurate decision.

Michel Platini

“Then we will have PlayStation football.”

Geoff-Hurst

Whether we like to admit it or not, football is as much a big business as it is a game. Sponsors and other stakeholders are involved, meaning the game itself is not as “simple” as people like Blatter and Platini suggest; its soul, for better or worse, was compromised long ago. Be that as it may, it’s more important than ever that the correct decision is made. In order to ensure these decisions are made objectively, football needs the assistance of technology to keep the game fair and correct. Technology doesn’t need to dictate open play rules, such as with offside calls or whether a player committed a foul, but it certainly should dictate if a goal has been scored or not.

There have been many opponents to goal-line technology outside of FIFA—players, managers, media, referees and fans have all expressed doubt that it’s needed. Their reasons against it range from the cost associated with installation and upkeep to, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter once explained, fears that goal-line technology will somehow detract from the “fascination and the popularity of football.” Blatter himself actually laid out eight reasons why goal-line technology should not be introduced before the 2010 World Cup. Among them, he hilariously claimed people enjoyed debating controversial decisions, such as Lampard’s disallowed goal, as if they were an important part of the spectacle. I’d say to him: tell that to the millions of England fans and players who endured that atrocity.

Others say that implementing goal-line technology would be prohibitive to smaller/poorer football associations. That’s a valid criticism, in a sense, but one that can be addressed over time. Money should absolutely spent on refurbishing infrastructure, developing youth/coaches and  building new facilities. But the argument that it changes the rules is absolutely moot—it just means there would be more fairness throughout. Everything about the game, from grassroots to the big leagues, would carry on as normal—there’s just that extra insurance involved in bigger matches. Reasons cited by opposers today just aren’t enough to keep from using a technology that can significantly reduce refereeing errors.

That’s why Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the 2010 World Cup was such a big turning point. No argument could justify the lack of goal-line tech in such an important situation—Blatter even had to personally apologize to England after the game. There’s something to be said about technology ruining the “magic” of sports, but having watched the entirety of the 2013/2014 English Premier League season, which used Hawkeye, not once did it detract from the experience; the players respected decisions, and the ebb and flow of the game was perfectly normal. More importantly, the integrity of football remained in tact.

Goal-line technology is capable of alerting a referee in a matter of seconds, so it’s not as though it’s stopping the game for lengthy replays. (That’s something I don’t think has a place in football, even when making decisions on whether or not to award a penalty. Or even for offside, which played a role in that England vs. Ukraine game.) In fact, the 2013/2014 season just so happened to be one of the best in Premier League history, not because of goal-line technology specifically. But it shows that the two, football and technology, can co-exist in harmony.

England vs. Germany World Cup 2010

England vs. Germany 2010 inside goal

Chelsea v Hull City - Premier League

I’d argue that the implementation of goal-line technology during this most recent Premier League season made the decisions even more exhilarating. TV viewers on NBC in the U.S. got to see just how agonizingly close the ball was to crossing the line. There were actually quite a few incidents that benefitted from the technology this year, and it was great to see Hawkeye, which uses a camera-based system, working as planned—and in some cases exceeding expectations. When Hawkeye was chosen by the Premier League, Richard Scudamore, Premier League Chief Executive, was confident using goal-line technology was the right decision. And it seems that investment was absolutely worth it.

“Football is fundamentally a simple game; whichever side scores most goal wins,” Scudamore said. “So, when one is scored, or indeed not scored, and we have the ability through technology to definitively know whether the ball crossed the line, we should absolutely use it. Principally, it is about getting it right.”

UEFA has introduced its own half-hearted alternative, using a five-man officiating team in Champions League and Europa League matches. But that system has come under criticism because it seems to cause more confusion than anything. What the end-line officials do is one of football’s biggest mysteries. In the games I’ve watched, I haven’t seen a single crucial decision made by an end-line official; do they call penalties? Signal corner and goal kicks? Or are they simply there for appearance’s sake? To appease goal-line technology supporters?

Ultimately, the biggest criticism I can see in the football versus technology debate is how the relationship between the appointed match official and the system being used (FIFA has signed contracts with four different companies) affect the game. The match official is afforded complete control, allowing him or her to call it at his or her discretion under a set of given rules. But what if that official doesn’t trust the system being used? That can pose a definite conflict, especially in big matches. Referees will still have final say on awarding a goal when a system is being used, and they even have the option of switching it off if they doubt its accuracy. With an estimated installation cost (for GoalControl at the 2014 World Cup) of $260,000 per stadium, and $3,900 per match to operate, that’s a lot of money spent on a system that may not even be used.

Sepp-Blatter-looks-on-during-a-press-conference

“Goal-line technology is no longer an alternative, but a necessity.”

Gaining Respect

Since FIFA has named four official candidates, it’s difficult to determine which system will win out in the long run. The Premier League has Hawkeye, while FIFA picked German-based GoalControl for the 2014 World Cup; GoalControl, incidentally, has already been used in other smaller tournaments (2013 FIFA Confederations Cup being one of them), though the World Cup is obviously the biggest imaginable stage. There weren’t any contentious goal-line incidents in the Confed Cup, by the way, and FIFA said the technology met all of the necessary requirements, correctly indicating every one of the 68 goals scored in the tournament. Most important of all, the match officials reported a high-level of satisfaction with the system.

As for the accuracy of Hawkeye, I remember one incident in particular, between Chelsea and Hull, that occurred pretty early on in the 2013/14 season. In first-half stoppage time, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard whipped in an excellent corner kick, which was met by defender Branislav Ivanovic. His header was sent screaming at Hull goalkeeper Allan McGregor, who made a miraculous one-handed save on the line. Chelsea fans screamed, players stopped, but the referee gave no signal; the ball, according to Hawkeye, didn’t cross the line, and as a result didn’t alert the referee. Upon further review, the Hawkeye system confirmed that it wasn’t, in fact, a goal—numerous replays and animations showed how close it came. It was the system’s first real test in its debut season, and it passed with flying colors.

The technology behind these goal-line systems isn’t exactly new; for Hawkeye, the system has actually been used both in Cricket and Tennis (among other sports) for years, giving the U.K.-based company plenty of time to perfect the technology. GoalControl, meanwhile, has been officially tested in big FIFA tournaments to the satisfaction of officials and executives. It’s worth noting that neither of these systems are 100-percent perfect, and there has been controversy around Hawkeye in particular, with the system’s accuracy being called into question while in use for cricket and tennis. As with any technology, however, things will only improve over time.

But, as we saw this season in the English Premier League, Hawkeye’s performance proved goal-line technology should definitely be part of the conversation, and is capable of assisting referees with big decisions—just ask Fulham’s Lewis Holtby, whose shot against Aston Villa came within millimeters of crossing the line. Further fueling the goal-line technology debate was a controversial goal that was given in a Bundesliga match between Leverkusen and Hoffenheim last year. (You can find out what happened to the right.) Needless to say the Bundesliga should reconsider its stance on implementing a system, which the league has been against despite players and managers voting to use it.

Major Ghost Goals

roy carroll

Man United vs. Tottenham (2005)

In the 89th minute of a drab 0-0 match, Tottenham’s Pedro Mendes launched a desperate shot from 55-yards out in an attempt to catch Man United’s Roy Carroll off-guard. Carroll, in a moment of madness, messed up a routine catch, bouncing the ball over his shoulder; the ball wound of clearing the line by a yard before it was palmed back out. The goal wasn’t given, and the game ended in a tie.

Leverkusen ghost goal

Hoffenheim vs. Leverkusen (2013)

Probably one of the weirder ghost goals in recent memory, Leverkusen’s Stefan Kiessling snapped a header to the near post on a corner, hitting the side netting. But, in a bizarre twist, the ball actually snuck through a hole in the net, appearing as if beat the keeper. The goal was given, but replays clearly showed it didn’t actually go in at all.

What Is GoalControl

Like Hawkeye, GoalControl is a camera-based, ball-tracking solution that’s relatively new among the four companies to win a FIFA contract; GoalRef and Cairos, two other candidates recognized by FIFA, use magnetic fields installed inside the goal instead of cameras. With the GoalControl system, fourteen cameras are installed in a single stadium, with seven positioned around each goal. The cameras continuously and automatically capture the ball in three dimensions—using X, Y and Z coordinates—allowing the system to indicate to a match official if a goal has been scored or not. If the ball has been determined by GoalControl to have crossed the line (up to 5mm accuracy), an encrypted signal is immediately sent to watches worn by match officials within one second.

Per GoalControl’s website, the system works with all balls, all goal frames and all net types and colors, meaning it can be installed at any venue and with any equipment already being used at a particular facility. In addition to using GoalControl to detect for goals, the system also stores data so a replay can be shown to TV audiences at any time; it’ll be a matter of whether competition organizers want to show decisions or not. When GoalControl officially won the bid for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he anticipates replays will be shown to fans on TV and in stadium.

“Once we have the technology and it shows it’s a goal or not a goal, we have to be transparent, otherwise there’s no need to do it,” Blatter said.

In order to ensure this technology will even work, mandatory pre-game tests need to be performed by match officials; prior to installation for the World Cup, FIFA hired a neutral company to perform months of testing, and found the results to be satisfactory. While Hawkeye has more experience compared to GoalControl’s recent arrival on the GLT scene, FIFA officials said the German-based company won the World Cup bid because it offers the cheapest investment, and is capable of adapting to local conditions.

“While all four companies had previously met the stringent technical requirements of the FIFA quality program, the final decision was based on criteria relating more specifically to the tournaments in Brazil, including the company’s ability to adapt to local conditions and the compatibility of each GLT system in relation to FIFA match operations,” FIFA said at the time of GoalControl’s appointment. “The respective bids were also judged on cost and project management factors such as staffing and time schedules for installation.”

Upon recognizing the use of goal-line technology, FIFA acknowledged that the speed of the game poses a huge challenge for referees, even laying down some science on how the action is faster than the brain can comprehend. “The human eye can handle approximately 16 images per second, which means the ball needs to be behind the line for at least 60 milliseconds. However, in some cases the ball is only behind the line for a few milliseconds before a player kicks it back or it rebounds back into the field of play, with the result that the human eye cannot see whether the ball has crossed the line.”

According to GoalControl’s technical data, the goal-line system is capable of seeing up to 500 frames per second, meaning it’s much more equipped than a human eye to keep up with the action, especially with multiple cameras positioned around the goal.

GoalControl watch

Hawkeye no goal

The Biggest Test Has Yet To Come

While FIFA and other associations are slowly coming around to the idea of using goal-line technology—with some embarrassing wake up calls along the way—there are still some major hurdles to overcome. In order for it to really prove that it belongs in the beautiful game’s future, goal-line tech will need to win over its remaining detractors—the biggest being UEFA’s Michel Platini, who believes implementing these systems will lead to one big slippery slope. And performing in the World Cup is the best way to do that.

As this year proved, Hawkeye is more than capable of making important decisions, while FIFA officials have already seen GoalControl work first-hand. The progress is extremely promising, and very valuable for football in the long run, especially when used in big matches. Referees are only human and, as we’ve seen all too often, they’re prone to mistakes; it doesn’t matter if it’s in a recreation league, in the bottom tiers of club football, or on the world’s biggest stage.

When the 2014 World Cup kicks off, starting with the game between Brazil and Croatia on June 12 in Sao Paulo, it’ll be a momentous occasion, a spectacle that isn’t, and never will be, matched by any sport; it’s like the Super Bowl magnified by a hundred. In all, there will be 64 games played, including the final on Sunday, July 13 in Rio de Janeiro. And in the middle of all the on-field and off-field drama will be GoalControl, its performance under microscopic scrutiny.

Best case scenario: all 64 games are played without issue, and GoalControl correctly confirms big goal-line decisions. If it can help officials (and FIFA) avoid another Lampard fiasco, the investment will have absolutely been worth it, and it’ll prove that technology does belong in a simple game. Worst case: GoalControl gets a decision wrong, giving officials a smoking gun reason not to trust all the progress that’s been made these last few years.

One screw up, even minor, and it’s back to the Stone Age for football, leaving the sport wide open for more Lampard moments.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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