By Paul Gardner
The farcical anachronism that goes under the name of the International Football Association Board -- IFAB -- is having its annual meeting tomorrow. Somewhere in Wales.
This is soccer’s rule-making group, and one of the items on its agenda -- for “discussion and decision” -- is Goal Line Technology (GLT). So here we have a board, that still retains many of the attitudes that prevailed when it was set up in England way back in Queen Victoria’s reign, preparing to pass judgment on a highly intricate technological matter.
It has been helped -- by FIFA, which has overseen a series of technical tests. We are now told that the tests were a bust. So IFAB has been rendered somewhat superfluous for the moment, because not one of the 10 various GLT systems tested was good enough to meet the required standards.
Which leaves IFAB to decide merely whether further trials should be conducted. No doubt they will say yes to that -- anyway, FIFA has already stated that it will fund such trials, so why not? All of which displays, rather nicely, the dithery muddle-headedness that characterize IFAB. One year ago IFAB ruled that GLT was not to be further considered, it was simply and finally and for ever off the agenda.
It is now back. The U-turn, of course, comes from FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and is a hefty reminder that IFAB can hardly be considered an independent body. Of its eight voting members, four are appointed by Blatter, and Blatter himself holds the casting vote.
The confusion over GLT, then, is hardly IFAB’s fault, but it does expose the board’s pathetic irrelevance: forced into an embarrassing retraction, then upstaged by a technical report.
Nevertheless, last year’s decision (Blatter’s decision, that is) to drop the whole thing was probably the most sensible approach -- though for the wrong reason.
The fact is that GLT is not necessary. Virtually all the technology that is required for deciding whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not is already in place. I refer to television cameras. The incident during the 2010 World Cup (England’s “unseen” goal against Germany) that re-ignited the GLT issue did not require any elaborate technology to resolve it -- the standard TV replay, available within seconds, was more than adequate.
I suppose that view of things will not be welcomed by the commercial interests involved, the companies seeking to supply the complicated equipment. FIFA it seems is looking for perfection. These are the standards that the 10 systems under test failed to reach: that the scoring of a goal be registered within one second, and that the system be 100 percent accurate.
That “one-second” requirement is there because the referee has to make an instant decision. He cannot stop the game other than to award the goal. The big fear -- I’ve heard this in almost every discussion -- is that the ball will rapidly move to the other end of the field, where a goal might be scored. How could the referee then disallow that on the grounds that is has been decided that a legitimate goal was scored at the other end -- maybe 20 seconds earlier? Also, goes the argument, play must be allowed to continue because the team that apparently scored on the first attempt may quickly score on a follow-up.
Those are serious issues -- though, I’m not at all sure that, in many decades of watching soccer, I’ve ever seen the first scenario acted out. The second is more likely -- but how frequently does it happen?
One obvious way of minimizing these risks would be for an immediate signal to be made -- it would be the equivalent of football’s flag -- indicating that subsequent play might be called back.
As for the “100 percent accurate” stipulation, that really exposes the impossibility of the whole enterprise. Remember: the whole of the ball must have gone over the whole of the goal line. So, in the end we’re talking about virtually undetectable measurements deciding whether a game-winning goal has been scored. A fraction of a nano-millimeter, if there is such a thing. A gnat’s eyebrow.
And when the FIFA techies check these systems for the gnat-eyebrow factor, what do they check them against? Is there already in existence a perfect system that can irrefutably make those measurements and that can be used as a standard?
I don’t think so. In short, any GLT system is likely to set its own standards, and they will have to be accepted. Forget the “goal line” -- that’s hardly likely to be a sharply defined line anyway. GLT will have its own way of creating a goal line -- probably a beam of some sort. If the system’s light goes on or if its buzzer sounds, then it’s a goal. No arguments.
There are three advantages offered by a GLT system: that it is consistent in its decisions (which may or may not be 100% accurate on any absolute scale but will be so by the system’s own standards); that, being a non-human contraption, it is free of bias; and that it delivers its verdict in lightning quick time.
Against them can be set two huge drawbacks. One: the intricate technology involved is certain to be extremely expensive. Two: it may never be used.
That last point raises the question: for whom is this technology intended? Is it only for FIFA tournaments? Or would all top leagues be expected to install it at all of their stadiums? Surely, it could never be used in the vast number of games played at all levels throughout the world.
It can be used only at the top level -- exactly where the lesser technology of television cameras is already universally at work. That is what should be used -- though FIFA may wish to add its own cameras, at little expense. Yes, the ultimate decision would then still be up to human beings making judgments on freeze-frames -- but the sport should not be looking for the impossible perfection that would supposedly be supplied by GLT.
Nor should it be adding another element to the sport’s already formidable anti-goal-scoring bias. The human beings involved should be instructed that, if they’re in doubt, they don’t mess about trying to calculate gnat-eyebrows ... they give the goal.