FEATURE | Technology in soccer: An inevitable long-term reality?

Technology has been used in sport since 1888, with the introduction of photo finishes in horse racing. Albeit not very advanced, it was a significant moment that kick-started the use of non-human elements in decision making within sporting events.

Jump forward to 1955, instant replays were available for officials within Canadian hockey. 1957 saw digital touch pads implemented in swimming races for the first time, replacing the need for officials. 23-years later, a significant change in tennis saw the ‘Cyclops’ computer system introduced at Wimbledon. This system combines multiple rays of infrared light which depicts a digital image into a computer system that would declare a ball in or out. Much like goal-line technology in football, this system was used to give a direct yes/no answer to the umpire’s query. Three years later in 1980, Motorsport officials were given their first major technology upgrade in the form of a chip system. Fast-paced racing such as the WRC benefited heavily from this, as chips determined timings to the hundredth of a second, which sometimes could be the difference between a title and a loss.

Following many years of debate, and a catastrophic incident at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa involving Frank Lampard (which no England fan will be able to forget), soccer was given its first major development in 2012, with the highly demanded goal-line technology system given the nod from FIFA.

frank_lampard_0
Credit: FourFourTwo

Two systems were trialled, and both notify the referee via a smart watch on their wrist. One system uses a combination of the ball, goalposts and magnets to give a decision, and the other (which is now the most common form of GLT) using modified high speed cameras. The latter system is what most soccer fans are more familiar with, where a 3D image of the ball is displayed in relation to the goal-line. For each team installing this system, the cost would be around £250,000, plus a £15,000 fee to be paid to FIFA to install and test it.

Cricket is a sport that uses technology to a greater extent than most others. Similarly to goal-line technology, cricket uses a hawk-eye system to create a 3D image of the flight path of the ball in order to spot LBW’s. Compared to how it used to be, cricket is very much technology-orientated when it comes to match-changing decisions. From 3rd officials watching camera replays to microphones in the stumps, decisions are made quickly and efficiently, and this is all seen by viewers at home to gain a better understanding. In 2008, the Decision Review System was used for the first time, which can be used at will by the 3rd official, or a team can challenge the umpire’s decision, where the DRS is brought into play regardless of what the umpire’s decision is. ‘Hot-Spot’ is where any slight ball contact with the bat can be detected by heat change, and will notify the 3rd official of this. The legitimacy of this is challenged by many players, and the accuracy of the system is still in question, making it controversial when brought into play. Newer cricket technologies include no balls at the crease and no balls for chucking. The latter is used for testing the movement of a bowlers arm to see if they are using an illegal movement, thus giving a no ball decision.

hawkeye

So, how would such a drastic addition to soccer change the way the game is played? Last season and during the World Cup in Russia, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was trialled. VAR’s initial objective was to rule out ‘clear and obvious refereeing errors’. Prior to the World Cup, many would have argued that VAR had been inaccurate, overused and still didn’t solve the problem, which was why Premier League clubs voted against the implementation of the system. FIFA noticed this and made some changes to the way VAR is used, both by the on-field referee and the chaos sitting in the studio.

For the World Cup, VAR checked every goal scored for any possible infringement, and notified the ref to either A) give the goal, or B) check the VAR monitor. Another change introduced was the responsibility of the linesman. Offside calls that were either very close or left the assistant unsure were NOT to be flagged, and for VAR to check if the resulting attack lead to a goal. Most of the time, this worked extremely well, and goals were disallowed correctly as the assistants worked together to call the offside. Slightly deflating for the attacking team, relief for the defenders.

VARR
Video Assistant Referee was in use during the 2018 World Cup in Russia and was used efficiently.

It is essential to remember as a fan that VAR is an ASSISTANT, the referee makes the final call, with or without the assistance of VAR which is THEIR choice. There is only so much VAR can do, and the perception of the referee of that game may change to the next, where a different conclusion may have been drawn. VAR will ALWAYS do its job, and it’s up to the referee to intervene when needed.

With VAR very much still in its baby phase, the technology will be still hit and miss at times which is always going to be down to the operators. The technology has been used across the world including in Major League Soccer and the A-League in Australia. Europe has now followed suit with the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga also getting involved.

varmls

Following VAR, what other technologies could soccer implement? It is hard to adapt a sport where a ball has to be kicked into a net, where 99% of the rules can be judged with the naked eye. Soccer without controversy is like having a brewery without alcohol. For years, fans of the sport love the differences in opinion. The weekends are made of disputes and arguments over ‘he won the ball’ or ‘he took the man first’, and how the ball was ‘too close’ to be handball. Add more technology, and this aspect of the beautiful game is lost.

Soccer is opinion-based. The mind of the individual chooses what decision is correct, and this is why VAR will always be inconsistent as it varies from ref to ref. Technology will always be hard to add to soccer in a game that is free flowing, without disturbing it. VAR covers most aspects of referee decisions, therefore different technologies would be hard to add. Most fans will agree they would rather see the referee make decisions based upon his initial judgement, rather than stopping play to consult a TV because a man in front of a monitor told him to.

There will never be a finalised answer to adding technology to soccer, and indeed to other sports. The debate for and against this argument could go on for days, weeks and months. Everyone has different opinions on this matter, but we can all agree that to keep this sport as the sport we all love, we still need a lot of human involvement on the pitch.

Written by Chris – (@SugarFreeStuani)

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