Referees are the worst. Anyone who plays, coaches, or watches sports will agree. They call either too little or too much. They’re blind, stupid, paid off, or just simply out to get us. (I know, I used to be one.) Of course, the biggest problem is that referees are human—and humans make mistakes.
In soccer, rulings are made on-the-fly and are often judgment calls that factor in severity, intent, and the game’s tempo. So human referees will likely always be necessary. But some situations can be reduced to fact. Is the ball over the goal line or isn’t it?
That’s why FIFA has contracted GoalControl to monitor the Confederation Cup in Brazil this year and, depending how that goes, perhaps the World Cup in 2014. GoalControl is comprised of seven super-fancy cameras aimed at each goalmouth. Anytime the ball ventures near the goal, the cameras track it with a powerful image-processing computer system capable of filtering out players, refs, birds, and streakers. The system measures the x-, y-, and z-position of the ball to determine its location down to the millimeter. Which is a lot more than we can say for the human eye at 30 yards.
The best part? When the ball crosses the goal line, GoalControl alerts the referees within less than a second via special vibrating wristwatches. So the zebras will literally be able to call a goal with their eyes closed.
Obviously, this isn’t technology’s first entree into sports officiating. Half the plays in the NFL are now scrutinized by multiple high-speed and high-frame-rate cameras. The NHL has a Video Goal Judge to review iffy scores. Tennis and cricket have integrated a ball-tracking system called Hawk-Eye. (Hawk-Eye was also considered for soccer, as was a chip system called GoalRef.)
But soccer presents unique problems. First of all, the game is played on an enormous field. (Soccer pitches are 100-130 yards long and are up to 20 yards wider than an American football field.) Across all that open green, just three referees keep track of 22 players, not to mention the coaches, benches, and crowd. Furthermore, two of the referees must remain anchored on opposite sidelines, parallel to the last defender—effectively rendering them useless for intricate plays on the other side of the field or moments when the ball may be obscured. Finally, the center ref spends the whole game chasing the action and can’t always be in the best position to make a call.
Not only is refereeing a soccer game one of the most difficult jobs in sports, it’s one of the most dangerous. Last October, a referee was allegedly beaten to death by a fan with a log in Zimbabwe. (The referee called back a goal.) Two months later in the Netherlands, a sideline referee was kicked and beaten so badly by teenagers, he later died. CNN summed up the violence in a recent piece called “Soccer Violence: Referees Under Siege.”
All of which is why GoalControl seems like a no-brainer. Unlike reviews in football, goal line technology shouldn’t change the sport very much at all. Real-time results will allow referees to make decisions in the moment as they always have. Except now, they don’t have to worry about starting a war every time the ball dances across the goal line.