FIFA, Technophobia, and 21st Century Futbol

Lampard Goal Photo 2010 World Cup


Over the years, this blog has discussed the long list of international institutions —  NATO, the G-8, the UN Security Council, and the EU come readily to mind — that need to be brought into the 21st century.  The events of the last few days demonstrate that FIFA should be added to the list.

The shot by England’s Frank Lampard in the 38th minute of the knockout round match against Germany that was disallowed would have tied the match 2-2. TV replays revealed what was obvious to those viewing it on television: Lampard’s shot had clearly crossed the line.  It could have been worse (and may still may be): it could have been an officiating mistake in the World Cup finals.

The referee, Mauricio Larrionda is reported to have said “Oh my God” when he saw a replay at half-time. Such events impact the way both sides play the rest of the game.

Futbol, or as it is known in the U.S., soccer, is the only sport that refuses to utilize available technology to verify the accuracy of a result. Baseball, for example, allows replays to verify home runs. Football and basketball routinely use video replays – even at the expense of halting the game. Hockey, tennis, and cricket all use electronic technology to avoid mistakes.

The World’s Superbowl

Many Americans do not fathom the significance much of the world attaches to the World Cup. For most of the world, it is roughly the equivalent of a cross between a month-long  Super Bowl and the Olympics. And add a large dollop of nationalistic pride.

Yet this World Cup has been riddled with dubious calls.

The goal that would have given the U.S. a win against Slovenia on Sunday was the first eggregious mistake. Video replays showed no discernible foul against any U.S. player (though it did show four Slovenians giving bear hugs to prevent U.S. players from getting to the goal). Remarkably, the Malian referee refused to say what foul was committed or who perpetrated it.

On Sunday, both knockout round matches were altered by officiating. First there was the England match, where an obvious goal was denied. Then Argentina was given a goal when the player who scored was clearly two yards offside, which video replay verified. A young Mexican team was visibly rattled by the event and surrounded the referee to challenge his call. The episode clearly changed the character of the game.

It is amazing that this sort of travesty occurs at the highest level of the world’s most popuar sport. Nations and teams spend millions of dollars, countless hours of sweat and sacrifice for years preparing to qualify and play in the 32-team tournament.

To err is certainly human – and part of any sport. But why is FIFA, the governing body of the global sport, so technophobic?

The argument against replays is understandable. Soccer is a game of constant motion for 90 minutes and there is a case against disrupting the rythmn of the game. There is also tradition. I have heard many players and coaches shrug it off and say about questionable calls on fouls, offsides, and yellow cards that such is the game and it all evens out eventually.

FIFA Technophobia

But it is particularly inexcusable to reject several technologies that have been developed and tested which could convey in realtime to the referees whether a goal is scored or not – without disrupting the game. Adidas and Cairos Technologies have developed an RFID microchip tracking system, with a chip in the core of the ball, which with ten antennas stationed around the field can relay the exact location of the ball.

Another company, Hawkeye Systems, which has technology already used in tennis and cricket, has developed a goal line video technology that the English Premier League is considering. The Hawkeye system trains six cameras shooting at 600 frames per second on the goal line and is able to tell if the ball goes over for even a fraction of a second, and by as little as 5mm. The data is processed in real time and can be relayed almost instantaneously to officials.

The technology has been tested for FIFA, but rejected. “Technology should not enter into the game. It was a clear, clear statement made by the majority of us,” FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke told a news conference after a vote rejecting it last March.  “Why should we have technology in a game where the main and unique parts should be the humans, players and referees?”

This technophobia irritates many prominent members of the soccer world. Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, a top English Premier League club, reacted to the March decision saying it was "beyond comprehension" that they were still opposed to goal-line technology. He added, “If you love football you want the right decisions to be made."

Tradition or Precautionary Principle?

It is one thing to defend the integrity of the game in regard to using video to review calls on fouls or offsides. But FIFA’s arguments of cost and delays make little sense when it comes to available goal line technology. It is true that there may be instances where the play is so close, even video replays might not be definitive, but these are rare.

The argument that FIFA seems to hang its hat on is simpler: tradition. As one FIFA official said last March, “The laws of the game are 124 years old and the referee’s decision has always been final." We do it because we have done it. So what if this is the 21st century?

This reminds me of the European Union’s embrace of the “Precautionary Principle,” which is uses as an argument against Genetically Modified food: Even if there is no scientific evidence that a substance is harmful, those advocating it, must prove it is not harmful. How do you prove a negative?

In the case of a hidebound FIFA, its technophobia comes at a high price for athletes and national teams who pour their souls into competing for their respective countries, only to be defeated through no fault of their own. Baseball is similarly conservative, but ultimately allowed video replays to determine home runs because of the impact on the game on getting it wrong. So far, FIFA will go no further than to consider adding a byline (goal line) referee or two. But the sidelines referee was there as England scored, and got it wrong. It should be obvious to FIFA that any outcome that is the result of officiating mistakes rather than the result of players efforts that can be avoided ought to be avoided if possible. How long will FIFA sustain its Luddite ways at the expense of the hope of justice for athletes who deserve no less?

Robert Manning is a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Image: lampard-goal-photo.jpg