By Paul Gardner
The GLT -- goal line technology -- saga has been going on for well over a decade now, with FIFA adopting a ludicrous chameleon mode, dithering between a flat-out no, a coy maybe, and a reluctant yes -- with many a backtrack along the way.
At the start, Sepp Blatter was fiercely anti -- "As long as I am president I will make sure that no technical help will be introduced in refereeing ...” That was Blatter in 2002. His reasoning was not always totally clear, but its determination to keep technology out of the game undoubtedly had a robust populist appeal. No robots! -- “We have to rely on human beings -- and human beings make mistakes ... To introduce technical items -- no. This will destroy an essential element of our game -- the emotion.”
Blatter maintained his virulent opposition but by 2010, as the World Cup approached, he had changed his reasons for not liking GLT. He had discovered that GLT could be “very expensive,” he warned that approving GLT could “open the floodgates” to more and more electronic controls, and he was now saying that GLT was wrong because -- given the high costs of installing the system -- it would mean that not everyone could be playing under the same rules: “The game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world.”
That last statement did not make much sense -- by “rules” he evidently meant “conditions,” and everyone knew that the dusty, bumpy, unlined fields of most amateur soccer throughout the world were already vastly different from La Liga or the EPL.
Blatter’s opposition had reached its end point. After a couple of monumentally wrong decisions during the 2010 World Cup (ironically, so blatant that they had no need of intricate technology to expose them), Blatter announced that FIFA would “reopen the file” on GLT. Blatter’s U-turn was now complete -- “as soon as we have a safe, fast and uncomplicated goal indicator, we will use it” he announced. Since then, it has -- apparently -- been a matter of testing various technologies to pinpoint the most reliable. So far, two systems -- Hawk-Eye and GoalRef -- have been approved.
But what on earth are we to make of the latest FIFA statement on GLT? It states, unequivocally, that GLT will be used next year during the World Cup in Brazil. But which system? If we thought that FIFA, which has conducted lengthy testing of various systems, had ruled out all except Hawk-Eye and GoalRef, we were evidently wrong. In Brazil, it might be Hawk-Eye that gets used, it might be GoalRef -- or it might be neither, because FIFA, at this late stage, has invited other manufacturers to submit their competing systems for testing. A move that -- at the least -- suggests that FIFA is not entirely happy with either Hawkeye or GoalRef.
This is puzzling. In this same statement, FIFA tells us that GLT will be used in Brazil following “a successful implementation of goal-line technology (GLT) at the Club World Cup in Japan in December 2012.” For that tournament, both Hawk-Eye and GoalRef were used. Successfully. Or so FIFA would have us believe.
But what can “successfully” mean? It’s worth pausing for a moment to focus on what GLT is designed to do. It has only one function. To resolve -- immediately -- those cases where the ball may or not have entered the goal. These are moments when a goal-bound shot is kicked or scrambled away by defenders, or where the ball hits the goal-frame (usually the cross bar) and bounces on to, or possibly over, the goal line.
That’s it -- GLT has no other function. Now, these disputed goal line moments are rare, very rare, in soccer. I do not recall any such goal-line incidents in the Club World Cup. Which can only mean that the two GLT systems did not face the one set of circumstances that they are designed to resolve. In other words, the GLT was never tested at all. So how can FIFA claim success in its use?
And they are talking about “use” here -- the word they use is “implementation.” I rather suspect they mean “successful installation” -- which is, no doubt, a complicated business. But it is not an achievement that tells us whether the system works or not.
The word “installation” does crop up in the FIFA statement, but in a mightily confused sentence. Talking of the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Confederations Cup (also in Brazil) FIFA states that "The aim is to use GLT in order to support the match officials and to install a system in all stadia, pending the successful installation, and pre-match referee tests."
No, I don’t understand what “to install a system in all stadia, pending the successful installation” means. Nor do I know what to make of “referee tests,” though the phrase does suggest that “successful” referees will be the ones who work best with the technology. Which sounds like a step toward robot referees -- the very thing that Blatter found so objectionable back in 2010.
Yikes! Not another Blatter U-turn, please!