By Paul Gardner
For those who look to science as the ultimate arbiter for soccer's thorny problems, it has been a rather indecisive week. We have been getting our first look at the by-now famous, or notorious, goal-line technology, GLT. Which, just to complicate matters, is now to be known as Goal Decision System, GDS.
The English Premier League, awash with more money than it knows what to do with, decided that it would install a GDS at all of its 20 stadiums for use this season. So who cares about the installation costs -- reported to be $250,000 per stadium? And never mind that the occasions calling for its use -- i.e. to decide whether or not the ball has entered the goal -- would be rare, possibly even non-existent.
So, in all 10 EPL games this past weekend, the formidable Hawk-Eye GDS, with its computers and its six (it may be seven) cameras, was at work, tracking the trajectory of the ball whenever a shot on goal was taken. Did it serve any purpose? None whatever. There were no disputed goal-line calls.
That soccer failed to cooperate in providing the necessary incidents should not surprise. Soccer is like that. There is perversity in its very soul.
In the deplorable absence of the real thing, the EPL and the Hawk-Eye crew and the television people gave us instead, a faux -- incident. In the opening Liverpool-Stoke game, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson smacked a shot off the post -- the ball rebounded and was clearly back in play before it hit the ground.
There was never any dispute here. A ball that hits the inside of the post and comes back into play cannot possibly have been over the goal line. No costly paraphernalia is necessary to work that out. Nevertheless, we got the works on TV, with several neat graphics of the goal frame, purporting to show the exact position of the ball (presumably down to some fraction of a millimeter), from various angles.
Impressive? I suppose so. But I find it less than totally convincing because we are looking at graphics that are evidently computer-generated. Can we trust them? Frankly, I can think of strong reasons -- based on the amazing creativity of the technology -- why we should not.
As the decision involved (and two more examples from later games) did not feature a tricky hair-line decision, we’ve no idea how a Hawke-Eye graphic will make that barely visible distance clear.
In the end, we’ve more or less decided that it doesn’t matter. We put our trust in Hawk-Eye -- whatever decision it makes, we’ll accept. This is certainly the practical approach, not least because we can assume that it gets rid of the possibility of bias when a human eye is involved.
But it is not science -- not unless the results are checked against an ultimate standard. In this case, it seems, the ultimate standard is Hawk-Eye itself. Hardly an objective standard, but one that will work if all parties accept it. Which everyone appears to have done -- and no doubt will continue to do until a glitch arrives.
Unfortunately, a glitch has arrived. Last weekend, while Hawk-Eye’s results in the EPL -- which had actually been of no practical value -- were being touted, things were panning out differently across the Irish Sea in Dublin. The sport was hurling, in which points can be scored by propelling the small ball over the crossbar and between the uprights of the H-shaped goalposts.
Controversies arise when the ball sails high and the goal line umpire has to decide whether the ball is still within a theoretical skyward extension of the 23-feet high goalposts.
On Sunday, an umpire decided the ball kept within the limits, and allowed the score. But Hawk-Eye over-ruled him. The embarrassment came when it was known that Hawk-Eye’s graphic agreed with the umpire. The Gaelic Athletic Association has temporarily suspended its use of the Hawk-Eye operation, while the reasons for the glitch are investigated. The GAA expresses confidence that the system will be “in full working order” by the coming weekend.
If we can assume that Hawk-Eye can operate glitch-free throughout the coming season, will it have been worth all the expense and the elaborate preparation? Last season’s EPL stats tell us that there were 31 disputed goal-line calls -- admittedly, rather more than I would have thought -- during the 380 games. Only three of those calls would have been reversed by Hawk-Eye, but it’s not clear whether those would have been game-changing reversals.
The opportunities for the new technology to show what it can do, then, are going to be rare. But when the crucial decision does arrive -- and you have to sense that there will be at least one -- GDS technology will have its day, and very likely silence its critics.