Was That A Goal? (Technology, Soccer, and The New World)

The United States has its roots in the continent across the Atlantic. Our democracy, language, and food can be traced back to Europe. Over the last 200 years, though, we rebel Americans have developed our own cultural attitudes; for instance we differ from our European cousins on universal health care (not having it), guns (we have lots), and stinky cheese (it stinks). Few things, though, illustrate the divide between their Old World and our New World than our differing attitudes to goal line technology in soccer.

If you haven’t heard, goal line technology is a system whereby either a set of high speed cameras or sensors determines whether a soccer ball has crossed the goal line and, thus, a team has scored. Reportedly, the results are available in under a second and are presumably both more accurate than human eyeballs and cannot be corrupted by referee biases (e.g. team prejudices, blinking, desires to ruin one’s own sightlines by standing behind goal posts, etc.).

The goal line technology debate resurfaced again at this year’s European Championships. Ukraine were fighting for their tournament lives against England. Ukraine scored, except English defender John Terry backwards kicked the ball out of his own goal. The goal line referee—a special official utilized in big games to determine if a ball crosses the line—didn’t see the goal (it happened very quickly) and didn’t signal for a goal. England ended up winning 1-0.

There are legitimate reasons not to implement the most obvious American solution: replay. The essence of soccer is a flowing, seamless game. There are no timeouts. The clock never stops. When the ref calls a foul, a team usually doesn’t have to wait for a whistle to restart so long as the ball is away from goal. Replays would introduce an unprecedented break in the action. We’d be killing a fundamental part of the game. We get it.

What’s maddening is the opposition to solutions which do not interrupt the action. With the goal line tech a pager of some kind would notify the ref when a goal is scored. He (it’s always a he) blows the play dead. The score changes. Justice is served.

Some people (i.e. some Europeans) still rage against using “non-human” agents in soccer. Let’s examine some of the arguments and also they reflect the divide between the Americas and Europe. Shorthanded reminds you that the following quotes come from actual sentient beings. We wish we were making these up.

*****“And mistakes are part of the game. It mean it’s difficult to accept for the team who loses like Ukraine right now. But it’s part of the game. Players, we make mistakes and referees, too. And that was really difficult.” ——Michael Ballack, German midfielder and ESPN analyst referring to the “ghost goal” in the Ukraine-England game.

The preceding is by far the most prevalent argument against goal line technology (or to changes to officiating in general). It’s often accompanied by pronouncements like “mistakes even out over time.”

Taken in any other context the attitude is ridiculous. Car accidents? Nuclear power plant meltdowns? The war in Iraq? Incorrect change at the grocery store? Mistakes are part of life! Let us forgive each other and move on.

While Shorthanded is totally down with forgiveness, we are also in favor of making sure mistakes don’t happen again.

The problem with this argument is highlighted by Ballack himself. The German midfielder acknowledges that it’s bad for the team that’s affected. There is no justice, particularly in a knockout competition where there’s no opportunity to “even things out.” Preventing wrongs in each and every game should be the goal of every sport.

To say that things balance out “in the end” amounts to relying on karma. Are the critics of goal line tech all Hindu or Buddhist? We didn’t think so.

*****“But I think as you say the offside aspect of that incident [a preceding non-call which would have negated the goal anyway] shows that it’s not exactly foolproof. You solve goal line technology and it. . .you know, you open up cans of worms elsewhere. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as an irresistible case for technology.”  —Oliver Kay, soccer correspondent for “The Times” discussing the England-Ukraine incident grudgingly admits that there might be a need for tech while simultaneously grumbling against it.

This is the age old argument that if we can’t get it perfect, we shouldn’t even try to fix things. The people who make this argument are afraid that we solve the goal line problem, then people are going to want to remedy other problems.

“But,” they cry, “if we fix goal line incidents, what happens if we can’t fix all the other problems, too?”

Perish the thought.

Refusing to fix a problem because it might highlight other problems is like saying you shouldn’t fix your car’s broken axle because then you’ll really start to notice that the wipers don’t work and window rattles. Really?

To be fair, Mr. Kay has a point. Tech can’t solve everything. Much of soccer’s “Laws of the Game” (as they’re called) are a matter of interpretation. Was an action “intentional?” Was a player “reckless?” Determining these human concepts are beyond any computer.

But none of that relates to the black and white issue of whether a ball crossed the line. Let’s fix that problem first. If other problems crop up, we can later decide whether we want to tackle those, too. One battle at a time, please.

*****”[FIFA president Sepp Blatter] will (introduce) the technology, but I think it’s a big mistake. … It’s the beginning of the technology, the arrival of the technology.”—–Michel Platini, President of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

Back in high school Shorthanded learned that the literature of the 20th century was characterized by a fear of technology. Whether it was Big Brother, splitting the atom, or The Terminator, 20th century man feared his creations would turn against him. Tech promised a new Eden, but it also spied on us, blew us up, and achieved sentience and sent time traveling robots that looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger back to murder (then save) us.

The 20th century was confusing and scary.

Since most of soccer’s powerbrokers are old, they seem to retain the previous millennium’s phobia of all things tech. The fear is so ingrained that guys like UEFA President Michel Platini don’t even make an argument; as the above quote illustrates, they just assume “tech is bad.”

Here’s the thing, though. Soccer’s just a game and goal line tech is quite harmless. It can’t blow us up. It will not achieve homicidal sentience. And the spying bit? That’s what we want! We want something to watch the ball and tell us if it scored.

The only thing that should be clamoring against goal line tech is the ball. If the ball feels its civil rights are being violated, let it protest, riot, and sue. Of course the ball would have to achieve sentience before taking action. . . hhhhmmm. . .maybe the soccer luddites are more savvy than we give them credit for.

The resistance to adding goal line technology comes primarily from Europe. FIFA, soccer’s world governing body will soon implement goal line technology. The one organization fighting change is UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body.  The Asian and African equivalents haven’t raised a stink while South and North America have advocated for change.

Soccer is an old sport and just like the old sport of baseball in the United States, soccer is loath to change, even if change makes sense. Baseball fought the introduction of technology harder than the “newer” sports of basketball and football. The guys that fought replay in baseball were also the oldest. The elder statesmen feared change much more than the younger generation.

The resistance in baseball parallels the resistance to tech in soccer. Europe, home of the traditionalists and old keepers of the game, is fighting for the status quo. The continent whose best years may be behind it clings to its traditions and its past.  Even the English who’ve come around to tech are reluctant to let it in lest it be the gateway drug to even more change.

South and North America, on the other hand, have heralded the new technology. The United States in particular is more than happy to break with tradition. In fact, the U.S. has been a soccer innovator since the beginning. Americans tried 30 minute halves, shoot outs instead of penalty kicks, and kick ins instead of throw ins; those didn’t take. But longer benches and more substitutes did. The only reason MLS doesn’t already have goal line tech is because until this year FIFA dragged its feet and, unlike in the past, the United States has decided to play by the world’s rules. If U.S. Soccer were as rebellious as it were it in the 80’s and 90’s, MLS would have had it in 5 years ago. There are no sacred soccer cows here. We’ll try anything if we think it’ll make things better.

Perhaps its because both North and South America are made up of nations of immigrants. Immigration is fundamentally reinvention and change. If you’re going to move to a new country, you’re going to have to be okay with trying something different. To be an immigrant is to embrace novelty and to believe that something new could mean something better. Perhaps that’s why in this hemisphere tweaking a game like soccer feels natural instead of subversive. Why not try something different if it could mean improvement?

Or perhaps it’s that the Old World is fading and the old powers are fighting the dying of their light. The new worlds of Asia and the Americas are on the rise. China, the BRIC nations, India are just beginning to exert their influence and power. Perhaps that’s why Europe is fighting change so hard—-goal line technology might just be the first step. If the old guard give the fresh, daring innovators this, who knows how the game might improve without them?

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One Response to Was That A Goal? (Technology, Soccer, and The New World)

  1. Pingback: Wait, The Olympics Has Soccer? (Yes, And Here’s Why You Should Watch) | Shorthanded Goal

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