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23 June 2012

Technology in Sport

Tag(s): Sport, Technology

Did the ball cross the line? Yet again that controversy has taken the sporting headlines. In the European Football Championships England has qualified for the Quarter Finals by beating the co-host nation Ukraine 1-0 and so winning the group. They will play Italy tomorrow night in Kiev. But in the 62nd minute of the game Ukraine appeared to have equalised when Marko Devic forced England’s Joe Hart into a save and the ball ballooned over the goalkeeper towards the net.  England’s controversial defender John Terry acrobatically leapt to clear the ball from under the bar. The Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai waved play on advised by an assistant referee on the line. Television replays seemed to indicate that the ball had crossed the line although they were not absolutely conclusive. These replays also showed that Ukraine had been offside earlier in the move and so the assistant referee’s error was cancelled out by his colleague.

The great Italian referee Pierluigi Collina, famous for his completely bald pate and staring eyes, that I once saw give a faultless display refereeing a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid, is now the UEFA supervisor of referees. He came to the defence of his colleagues but admitted that “The ball crossed the line, that was unfortunate, it would have been better not to have it.” He blamed human error for the call but said two similar decisions in the 24 matches played so far in the tournament – in the Germany-Portugal and Italy – Croatia group matches – had been correct.

England kept their one-goal lead and advanced as group winners while Ukraine were eliminated, although a draw would still not have been enough to take them through. Naturally the host nation was upset and even its Prime Minister got involved claiming even he could see it had been a goal. The incident has re-opened the debate about the introduction of goal line technology after a number of high profile cases where goals were either given or disallowed in disputed circumstances. The clearest of these also involved England when Frank Lampard shot went well over the line against Germany in the World Cup in 2010. That goal, if given, would have brought the team level to 2-2. Instead Germany went on to win 4-1 and knock England out of the tournament.

The notorious head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, who is now in favour of technology after opposing it for years, wrote on Twitter: “After last night’s match #GLT (goal-line technology) is no longer an alternative but a necessity.”

His counterpart at European’s football‘s governing body UEFA, Michel Platini disagrees and said this week that the five officials currently being used in Euro 2012 were enough to prevent any controversial decisions. That is clearly wrong and Collina understands the issue better when he defends his referees but admits that they had a 95.7% accuracy in calling offside decisions in the group matches. But that is also selective. Since Greece won a penalty in the opening game against Poland (which they missed) there have been 52 fouls in the penalty area and in the eyes of the officials all 52 were committed by the attacking team.

FIFA is currently trialling two prototypes of goal-line technology, one from British firm Hawk-Eye, which uses a series of cameras in stadium roofs to track the trajectory of the ball and another from German firm GoalRef, which uses sensors.

Some years ago when I worked at Pentland, one of the brands for which I was responsible was Mitre, a leading brand of football. Two young scientists approached us with a new technology to determine whether a ball had crossed the line. It involved sensors and also radio with a transmitter in the ball which would alert the referee if the ball had crossed the line between the posts. I went to meet them and to study the technology but I could not get past the idea that this was an extreme solution to a rare problem and I declined to take it further. I was surely right in that even after all these years it is only now that a consensus seems to be building to adopt such technology. I think this is a mistake.

First, goal line incidents of this kind are rare. In most cases the referee can see clearly that a goal has been scored or not scored and gives the correct decision. On occasion he is helped by one of his assistants in reaching his judgement. Of course when he is subsequently proved wrong it arouses a lot of emotion but such is the game and there are many other controversial decisions in football, not all of them involving the referee.

Second, I believe it would be the thin edge of the wedge. To start with it would just be used on the very rare occasions when a goal may have been scored but it is not completely clear. But then the clamour would grow to bring technology in to adjudicate on all manner of decisions: offside, corner vs. goal kick, penalty incidents etc. The game would become like other games that have been ruined by constant interruptions. (See my blog Slow Play 2nd July, 2011)

Third, football is different from these other games in that it is almost continuous. While American Football is based on a series of plays, cricket on balls bowled, tennis on rallies, they all come to an end quite soon and so the play is not interrupted when a replay is referred to. But football can go on for some minutes without a break, and in fact did in England’s game against Ukraine. If the referee decides that he wants to consult a replay to see if the ball crossed the line, when will he do this? After the game had otherwise come to a natural stop? But what if a goal is scored at the other end in that time?

Fourth, I believe the Laws of the Game should be uniform at all levels of the sport. Clearly we cannot afford goal line technology in school boy games, or indeed in the vast majority of matches that are played around the world. It is in my view wrong, therefore, to create a different class of football with different laws, particularly which may call into question the authority of the referee.

Fifth, it has to be accepted that many sports and certainly football have a subjective element to their refereeing. A referee makes many decisions in a match and the good ones get most of them right. But no referee gets them all right. Meanwhile the players are also making decisions and many get those wrong too. The game is not between machines to be refereed by machines but between people with all their imperfections. That is why it is a great game. It is not predictable. It does cause emotion and argument and passion and controversy.  Take that all way at your peril. But let’s hope that Italy don’t knock us out tomorrow night with a ‘goal’ that did not cross the line. But then we're more likely to go out on penalties. We have five times in the past 22 years.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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