By Paul Gardner
We know that Michel Platini doesn’t think much of goal line technology. He prefers his system of using extra assistant referees, one at each end, patrolling the goal line.
Which can be seen as a simple case of preferring men over machines. It sounds good, put like that =- not least because, on the whole, that is a philosophy that I find attractive. I’d very much like to whole-heartedly back these additional assistant referees, the AARs, but dammit, they’re not helping their own cause. There was that utterly ridiculous call in Euro 2012 that denied the Ukraine a goal against England, and more recently we had a worryingly confused call in the Celtic-Juventus UCL game.
Platini’s claim for the AARs that “they see everything” is simply too extravagant. We can expect humans to make errors -- but with those extra pair of eyes, we can expect that there will be fewer errors.
Set against that, we have the implied claim of GLT that it will get every call right. We don’t know whether that it will work that perfectly, because it has yet to be tested. I mean tested under real game conditions in major tournaments.
I remain totally baffled by FIFA’s claim that two GLT systems were “successfully tested” at the recent World Club Cup in Japan. As there were no disputed goal-line calls in that tournament -- and, remember, that is the only use for this technology, the only occasion for which it is needed -- then what can they have been “successfully” testing? Installation? Bleeps on monitors? Communication with the referees?
The list could be much longer, this is undoubtedly a highly technical set up. Which brings me to an aspect of GLT that has been present right from the start, but which has never been fully spelled out. The cost.
How much will it cost to rig up a stadium with a GLT system? How much to maintain it, to constantly check that it is in perfect working order -- even though it may never be used. Because disputed goal-line incidents -- especially crucial ones - are rare occurrences in soccer. I don’t have any stats, I can’t find any, relating to the frequency -- and that in itself, in this stat-driven age, is rather odd.
We return to Platini, and this time -- rather than making sweeping “they see everything” claims, he is making much more sense. He is talking money. GLT, he says, is too expensive for UEFA to use in the Champions League: “It would cost around $69 million over five years,” he says, noting that it would have to be installed in 280 stadiums, and then “removed for domestic games.” I don’t know where he gets that 280 stadiums figure from nor do I understand why the system, once installed, has to be removed. Whatever, the key number is the $69 million -- “Quite expensive,” says Platini “for the sort of mistake that happens once every 40 years.”
Once every 40 years is no doubt an understatement, though probably not by much. We don’t have those stats ... and, even more strangely, we don’t have an accurate estimate of how much these GLT systems cost. FIFA has been evasive and coy on the matter. At the most recent IFAB meeting, secretary general Jerome Valcke stonewalled money questions, saying there were different prices for different systems, all six-figure, “Some the lowest six figures, others higher.” And it never seemed clear whether he was talking Euros or dollars.
Over a decade ago, when GLT was in its infancy, I was given a guesstimate of the cost as a rather staggering $250,000 per stadium. Maybe nothing’s changed. If you take Platini’s 280 stadiums and do the multiplication at $250,000 per -- you come up with $70 million, pretty well exactly Platini’s total.
That sort of expense to guard against a very rare occurrence must lead to the “Do we need this?” or “Is there anything cheaper?” questions. Of course, there’s a cheaper alternative. Simply using standard TV replays, which are already available in almost every stadium, virtually instant these days, and pretty sophisticated.
But FIFA, originally so opposed to any replays at all, has wedged itself into a corner over this, by insisting that a replay system won’t work -- the referee has to know instantly, in real time if it’s a goal or not. The game must not be stopped to consult a replay.
A vision of disaster haunts the minds of these “real-time” advocates: that a ball will be hooked off the goal line and play will immediately race down to the other end where a goal will be scored. Then what do you do? Stop to look at a replay, decide the first incident was indeed a goal and so disallow the second goal? Heavens, what a mess. The fact that such a scenario -- to take up Platini’s measurement scheme -- happens only about once every 80 years seems not be a factor worth considering.
Soccer should take a close look at this before it starts spending wads on what will inevitably be a rarely-used system -- and one that still has to be “successfully” tested.
Returning to that rarely seen disaster scenario: why not take a look at football? The referee, after the goal-line clearance, allows play to continue -- but throws a flag. The flag indicates a call for a replay, and lets everyone know, just as in football, that any subsequent play may be nullified. At the next natural game stoppage, the referee is told what the replay shows.
Where’s the problem? Possibly the team that thinks it just scored will deliberately foul to get the game stopped -- but that foul might happen anyway, and is surely a contingency that can be dealt with.
But soccer, so ill-equipped to investigate and analyze such matters (what group or body or committee would do it?) has jumped straight from a defiant “No technology!” stance to embracing the most complicatedly technical system it can find.
It is clear to all that there are certain, rare, instances when the referee needs assistance in deciding whether a goal has been scored. But it’s far from clear that he needs the complexity of soccer’s version of a star-wars system to help him out.