In sports, many people struggle to accept new statistics that might help them determine which athletes are more valuable than others, like WAR (wins above replacement) in baseball or PER (player efficiency rating) in basketball. They prefer the old standbys: home runs and pitching wins, points per game. These measures have enjoyed such success and longevity that improvement or refinement seems useless or impossible.
Tech in sports faces a similar conservatism — and in soccer especially. MLB umpires can check replays after a questionable home-run call to verify their decision. NFL coaches can challenge a play and referees will check replays to get the play right. NBA referees can retroactively change calls made on the court during timeouts or at the end of each quarter. (Indeed, the NBA seems to have the easiest relationship with technology, a fact possibly related to the numerous caesuras in play that are part of basketball.) Soccer has proven hostile to such revisory systems. But that might be changing. Tuesday, FIFA announced that the World Cup will use goal-line technology in the 2014 games to help eliminate bad calls by referees. The news came as something of a dramatic reversal: FIFA President Sepp Blatter had previously been a staunch opponent, citing worries over the tech’s accuracy (which is much less of a concern now).
This technology — adapted from the Hawk-Eye system developed by GoalRef for pro tennis, which uses magnetic sensors to track the ball — was put to the test in December 2012 during the Club World Cup in Japan and passed with flying colors. Despite this, the tech isn’t used in Major League Soccer, the English Premier League, La Liga, or any other main soccer leagues in the world. Why? The game has an insistent flow unmatched by other sports, and the soccer establishment is — rightly — interested in maintaining that flow. This explains the absence of replays, for example — and the occasional truly egregious call.
Goal-line tech will be seamless in its transition to the soccer field. There will be no time wasted and its effect will hardly be noticed during the game. The soccer-adapted version of Hawk-Eye requires a smart ball, developed by Danish company Select — the uninspiringly named Intelligent Ball — that can be tracked by the sensors; when a call is needed, Hawk-Eye grabs the data and transmits a near-instantaneous judgment to the ref’s wristwatch.
So what’s the downside? Why the seemingly endless wait to adopt the tech, which has been discussed since a questionable call in 2000 on a penalty shootout during the Africa Cup of Nations? Money concerns, for one: not the system’s cost but the possible damage any structural change to the game might (the soccer establishment fears) do to league and team revenues. As Blatter himself put it before his flip-flop: “Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. . . We don’t do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football”. That type of thinking, as is clear from Blatter’s switch, won’t fly anymore. Witness Frank Lampard’s take on the issue. The English midfielder — who had a key goal taken away from him during a 2010 England vs. Germany match — called use of the technology in soccer a “no-brainer.” Indeed.