At last, after years of horribly bad referee calls, the cave full of old crooks and farts known as FIFA has approved the use of technology to track the ball in soccer games. This is a huge change, with profound implications in the most popular sport in the world.
Soccer—or football, as everyone but the United States calls it—is played by more than 250 million people in over 200 countries. It moves more money than any other sport on the planet. More importantly, billions of fans watch it avidly every other day. A soccer game—the European Cup 2012 final in which Spain destroyed Italy—generated more tweets than any other sporting event before it.
All of those fans love soccer as much as they love to discuss referee calls during and after the game. Calls that, when erroneous, may not only decide the outcome of a game but the fate of a team in a given competition or tournament, both of which often have national pride at stake. Moreover, a bad call may represent hundreds of millions of dollars won or lost for a team—to say nothing of making a whole country cry. You know (or should), like when the USA lost that game to Slovenia in the World Cup, all because the referee was a blind moron.
That bad call, however, would still not have been avoided even if the technology that FIFA has approved today—through the International Football Association Board (IFAB)—had been in place.
The approved tech only affects ghost goals. Ghost goals occur when the ball passes the goal line but then jumps straight back out. Technically, it is a goal. But referees sometimes don't call it as such because they can't see it from their point of view—even while the entire world can see it clearly on their TVs.
Other times, the refs seem to have ignoble intentions—like when Lampard scored for England against Germany in South Africa '10, or Spain's Michel kicked the ball inside Brazil's goal in Mexico '86 only for it to bounce out.
The first technology is called HawkEye, which had been used in tennis for quite some time. HawkEye's cameras will be installed on the pitch's goalposts. They will track the ball and make sure it has passed the line.
For redundancy, there will be another tracking technology called GoalRef. Developed by Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, GoalRef uses a low magnetic field around the goals, creating an invisible radio curtain. When the ball fully goes through that curtain, the magnetic field changes and the system sends an alert to the referee's wristwatch.
Both will be great additions that will avoid extremely bad and embarrassing decisions by the referee.
But technology can do a lot more right now, eliminating 90% of the most common problems in referee decisions: off-sides. They only need to incorporate location microchips into players' boots and the ball. It doesn't have to be GPS. It could work locally, with a computer triangulating the position of players and balls using receptors placed around the field. It's not science-fiction technology. It can be easily done and it's not expensive for a sport that generates more money than any other in the world.
A technology like that, plus multiple cameras, would eliminate most of the problems and randomness of soccer, while avoiding interrupting the game too much.
Why they don't do it? Some say that, if you make it all too perfect, you take power away from the referees and the soccer federations. Others say that you will take la salsa off the sport. Like I said, people love to argue about these things. And then there are those that say that this would stop the game.
It's all bollocks, especially the last part: The game stops every time there's referee call, but even more so when it's a dubious fault, penalty, goal, or offside. It's then when players and referee waste minutes discussing the play (and frustrated players get pissed off too, which later usually leads to more adrenaline and violence in the field).
Hopefully, the introduction of GoalRef and HawkEye signals a much needed change in a world that, more often than you think, is affected by hidden interests and manipulation. And I hope that, if FIFA can change, other sports can change too.
When so much money and fans' pride is at stake in American Football, basketball, baseball and any-other-ball game you can think about, there is a clearly a need to use all the technology we can come up with to avoid any costly mistakes. [FIFA and Fraunhofer]