Soccer is poised to finally end its long resistance to modern technology by implementing a ground-breaking new system designed to eradicate unfair goal-line decisions.
Following a weekend that saw yet another high-profile match influenced by a refereeing mistake, international governing body FIFA will push ahead with plans to test and then introduce new technology that uses missile-grade precision sensors or a magnetic field to assist the officials.
Suitable methods have been available to FIFA for more than a decade, but until now the game's chief rules-makers have firmly shunned attempts to update the sport's means of resolving disputes.
However, pressure from the international media, fans, players, coaches and administrators has caused soccer's hierarchy to cave in at last, a process helped by abysmal errors such as the one seen in Sunday's English FA Cup semifinal between Chelsea and Tottenham. Chelsea comfortably won the game 5-1, but its second goal should not have stood, as Juan Mata's goal-bound effort was stopped by the Tottenham defense a foot short of the line.
FIFA will conduct extensive tests on two systems under consideration. The first, widely considered the favorite, is the Hawk-Eye product used in professional tennis and international cricket. Hawk-Eye, now owned by Sony, uses a series of high-tech cameras to track the ball at every stage of its flight. It can determine whether the ball has crossed the line thanks to the same processes its inventor, Dr. Paul Hawkins, once used to develop programs designed to assist in complex brain surgeries and missile flight patterns.
It faces stern competition, though, from a Danish company called GoalRef that relies on a magnetic field to achieve the same result and also boasts exceptional accuracy.
A broad and lower-level initial testing process narrowed the field to Hawk-Eye and GoalRef earlier this year, although at that point any shift in the laws of soccer was unlikely.
"The second phase of tests will commence before the end of April," read a FIFA statement this week. "[It] will continue throughout May."
Both Hawk-Eye and GoalRef are beloved in the technology world and said to boast the finest and most up-to-date developments. Each has the capability to inform the referee within less than one second whether a goal should stand or not. Such quick timing mutes the argument that analyzing contentious goals would upset the flow of a game.
However, Hawk-Eye has long had the ability to assist soccer in this way, only for the powers that be to sit by idly. "We could easily adapt our technology to be used in [soccer]," Dr. Hawkins told me June 22, 2003, the day that the Wimbledon tennis tournament first used Hawk-Eye to assist with line calls. "In fact it is one of the easiest things we could do.
"But at the moment [it] is one sport we are definitely not looking at branching into. The … authorities are impossible to deal with. We have tried to speak to them a few times, but they do not seem to be very forward-thinking at all. It is all so slow-moving."
NFL has embraced technology, using review to positive effect, but the length of time taken to look at controversial plays was used as part of the case against technology in soccer. On the flip side, the reticence of Major League Baseball to use up-to-date replay methods was used by soccer as an example of why change was not necessary.
The reason soccer's stance has remained rigid for so long – and the same reason a change will happen now – is the complicated system used for altering the laws of the game. Because of the traditional role of the so-called "Home Nations" – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – in soccer history, those countries retain strong influence on the rule book.
The International Football Association Board is made up of four FIFA representatives and one member from each of the four British federations. That has left FIFA powerless to usher in anything without British support, although it must be pointed out that the governing body has not exactly been forward-thinking itself.
Now though, British opinion has shifted firmly in favor of technology. England's exit from the World Cup in 2010 at the hands of Germany included one of the most glaring errors in tournament history when Frank Lampard's strike clearly crossed the line but was disallowed.
Chelsea's "ghost goal" on Sunday only shifted perception further – with the fact that the game took place at Wembley Stadium, between two high-profile teams, doing far more good than any number of similar situations in matches between smaller clubs in smaller settings could have.
"It is amazing that [soccer] is behind the times in trying to achieve justice," said Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the powerful Professional Footballers Association, to the BBC. "It is perverse. I don't know why we should expect to put all the onus on referees."
If the technology comes in, it will be after the European Championships, meaning there could again be the unedifying situation of a major tournament being impacted unfairly. But by next season, it increasingly looks like new regulations could be in place. Provided Hawk-Eye and GoalRef meet specified accuracy requirements, one of them (or even a collaboration) will be picked and see its technology enter the fabric of the professional game and be used for major matches.
While FIFA and the rules board should be commended for righting this wrong, it is impossible to ignore that this should have happened long ago. Countless matches at the highest level have been tarnished by incorrect decisions that so easily could have been rectified, with careers, nations' hopes and the destiny of major silverware having been affected.
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