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How Much Technology Is Too Much Technology for Soccer?

Let's not go to the videotape.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

On a brighter note than Blatter and FIFA—and it’s hard to think of a darker note—this is the first World Cup where technology rather than human eye and judgement will decide whether a goal has been scored, or at any rate whether the ball has or has not crossed the line. This should in theory end the kind of controversy which has simmered in England and Germany (two countries which have had a few differences of one kind or another over the years) ever since Geoff Hurst’s goal that wasn’t, reignited by Frank Lampard’s goal that was.

In 1966, England won their one and only World Cup to date, on home soil, beating West Germany, 4-2, in the final. The match has entered our national mythology, with the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme's words almost ranking alongside “England expects that every man will do his duty” or “This was their finest hour.” In the last moments of extra time, England were leading 3-2, when Wolstenholme said, “And here comes Hurst! He's got ...” at which point some fans spilled onto the pitch. “They think it's all over!” and then, as Hurst scored, “It is now, it's four!” 

Except that it wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been. The camera replay showed clearly, to most of us then and since, that Hurst’s shot had rebounded down from the crossbar and spun back without crossing the line. It still rankles with the Germans—but then the Bloemfontein incident in the World Cup four years ago rankles with us. In the last-16 game against Germany (of course), Frank Lampard had what would have been an equalizer disallowed. Germany went on to win 4-1, but this time the camera showed that the ball had easily crossed the line before peskily bouncing back. It was especially tough on poor Lampard, who had set some kind of record in the previous World Cup (it had to be in Germany) when he took 24 shots at goal, including a penalty, without scoring.

Beginning with last August’s Community Shield match between Manchester United and Wigan, respectively winners of the League and FA Cup, the new camera-tech has been introduced after being carefully crafted and tested. It’s highly sophisticated, and I think we can make a fair bet that there will be no injustices in this World Cup concerning goals that should have been awarded or not. 

Does that mean that there’s room for more televisual technology in football? I hope not, especially after the experience of two of the other sports we English invented so that other people could beat us at them. Cricket is now increasingly tedious thanks to the techies, and rugby is quite intolerable. 

Either side in an international cricket match can now appeal against an umpire’s decision, usually one for lbw (leg before wicket—don’t ask, but something like a called third strike). On the first day of the World Cup, England played Sri Lanka at Lord’s in London earlier in the day. With England batting, the Sri Lankans had two appeals against “not out”  calls, one successful, one not, with the review based on replays and supposedly on a computer simulation of the ball in flight. I haven’t detected any real improvement in the game since this innovation, and from the little I know of baseball it would not be a better game if pitcher or batter could appeal against an umpire’s call. 

As for rugby, the longueurs from adjudication are now interminable. Often when a try or touchdown is scored—or maybe scored—the referee makes a oblong shape with his hands asking the “TMO,” the television match official, to examine the play. In the nature of the game it’s quite often impossible to establish which man in a human pile had his hand on the ball as it was grounded, even from four camera angles, even after many, many minutes of deliberation by the TMO.

And the other form of football, aka soccer? It’s at least hypothetically plausible that off-pitch officials using camera replays should adjudicate on an offside decision, or that a team could appeal against a penalty—such as the one which gave Brazil their second goal on the opening match, after Fred’s balletic backward dive following the faintest of contact. 

I would personally be happy to see a disciplinary panel review matches afterwards and punish dangerous fouls, or simulation, with large-enough-to-hurt fines. But please not on-the-spot real-time appeals, not after what we’ve seen in other sports. Oh, and there’s one other innovation in this Cup—the ref’s foam-spray canister for marking the spot of a free kick and the ten-yard line for defenders to stand behind. Now that’s pure genius, Newtonian in simplicity, Einsteinian in profundity. Why did no one think...