Goal-line technology comes to soccer – what’s next?

The approval of the use of goal-line technology by FIFA’s International Football Association Board is a historic event in the evolution of the sport whose consequences may not be apparent over the near- or medium-term.

First, the facts of the matter: the IFAB, which approves all changes to the Laws of the Game, unanimously approved the use of technology aids to determine whether the ball crossed the goal line.  The two companies that took part in stadium testing — GoalRef and Hawk-Eye — were approved by the Board subject to a final installation test.  The wording of the Laws of the Game will be reworded: Law 1 (The Field of Play), Law 2 (The Ball), Law 5 (The Referee), and Law 10 (The Method of Scoring).

Goal-line technology is a challenging subject — more so than many of its proponents recognize — and its inclusion has been a hot topic over the last 20 years. In addition to the technical challenges of tracking the entire ball crossing the plane of the goal under all weather conditions and in the presence of player and object occlusions, goal-line technology has had to overcome significant cultural and philosophical resistance.  FIFA, through Sepp Blatter, has alternated from being willing to accept goal-line technology, to rejecting it, to finally calling it a ‘necessity’. UEFA chief Michel Platini has rejected goal-line technology out of hand, and continues to advocate the uses of additional assistant referees in matches (which didn’t work out so well in the Ukraine vs England match at Euro 2012).  In the end, a number of high-profile goals that weren’t given made the adoption of goal-line technology inevitable.

FIFA have stated on multiple occasions that the human element of the game is of great importance to them, that the game should be as universal as possible, and that the final decisions on the field will be made by humans.  Yet there are multiple technological aids that referees use right now, such as digital watches and wireless communication equipment, that help the referees do their job, not to mention the technological advances in the ball and the footwear.  As Jerôme Valcke pointed out in the press conference, the game is already multi-tiered when you compare the game as played in a Sunday League match to the Premier League.  The level of money in the latter dictates the amount of technology available and demands that match decisions be as accurate as possible.  In a game with continuous action and few goal-scoring opportunities as soccer, where a goal has a significant impact on the outcome of the game, it’s extremely important that those events be decided accurately and quickly.  To claim — as Blatter has done — that goal-line technology will bring an end to barroom debates on match incidents and is therefore a bad thing is, to be frank, stupid.  Anyone who knows soccer fans will know that they will shift their attention to the next controversial incident, of which there are plenty in sport.

So now goal-line technology will be part of the game of soccer.  What’s next for the sport?  Will other technologies enter the game?

FIFA have been very adamant that technology will be used to decide goal-line crossings and no more, but I find it hard to believe that it will stop there.  The experience of history shows that small changes to laws and constitutions can lead to unrecognizable changes over decades.  I believe the next area of technological focus will be offside decision aids, which a number of research groups have worked on (I reviewed one of the research papers in the early days of this site) but is more challenging than the yellow line that American audiences have grown accustomed to seeing in American football.  Another technological aid would be the use of GPS and health tracking of players during matches.  These devices provide a stream of fitness data to the coaching staff, which is a dream to an analyst like me.  Such technology is already being used in matches in Australian rules football and both rugby codes, but football remains resistant (some domestic leagues allow its usage if the referee approves, but GPS tracking is in general not allowed by continental authorities).  There are probably other technologies as well, but any device will undergo years of testing and justification — technical and philosophical — before it is adopted by the IFAB.

Over the short- and medium-term, goal-line technology will remain the lone innovation in the sport of football.  Beyond that horizon, it’s really anyone’s guess as emerging technologies mature.