Law 11. 133 Words. The mere mention of it among soccer fans is likely to result in arguments and debates in watering holes and living rooms worldwide. This team lost the big match, the line judges are never in position, etc. It also seems to generate the most confusion among parents and spectators not very familiar with the game. In my opinion it is one of the laws that gives soccer its beauty and mystique. However, its element of ‘advantage’ makes it tough on officials and can generate controversy. It is also a very difficult call to make given the fast paced action and number of variables an official must take into account to make the proper call. A recent spat of overturned goals due to bad offside calls has caused many to again call for a technological solution to the problem.
Recently in the premiership there have been a number of goals disallowed for offside. Several of those when shown on a slow motion replay with a line across the last defender have shown the player was onside.
Surely all it requires is some simple technology. A simple method would be that the fourth official sees the replay and tells the ref via his ear piece if he was on or offside. It wouldn’t cost anything but it would provide some justice.
So is it time for the FA to sort this problem out and bring justice to the game?
FIFA has worked hard to keep soccer true to its roots of simplicity and elegance. Three or four officials with flags, a stopwatch, and a whistle. Corners marked with simple flags, and a big rectangular box to shoot at. FIFA has repeatedly refused to allow new technologies onto the field since many feel it would take something away from the game. The referee of a soccer match rules the field – their decisions final, no matter how bad the call. That also adds an element of mystique and simplicity.
But technology is creeping its way into soccer bit by bit. Is that really a bad thing if done properly?
Assistant referees can use flags with transmitters in them to alert the center referee of infractions they’ve seen, etc. I can’t see how this impacts the game negatively. The substitution boards used to indicate player exchanges and added time have become electronic with ultra bright LEDs. Though they are still held aloft by the fourth official, vs mounted on a score board display. But things like that are minor. Talk about technology to monitor when the ball crosses the line or to track if a player really was offside are sure to spark raging debates about the integrity and future of the game.
I for one would mourn for the game if fourth officials were given broad instant replay power. Soccer is a game of non stop action which is one of the beauties of the game. Infractions are called by the center referee and play continues almost uninterrupted with the ball dropped on the ground and kicked back into play. Instant replay would ruin the ebb and flow of the game.
However, goals are the holy grail of soccer. Few are scored in a given match and one goal often will have a huge impact on the result of a match. Would it be the end of times to implement technology to ensure a goal is a goal? Anyone who has served as an assistant referee knows how hard it is to stay with the action. Stay near the second to last opponent, watch for when the ball is last kicked, try to keep a clear sight of the goal line to judge when a ball crosses it, etc. Mistakes here can cost teams matches. Thus, an argument can be made that in the case of goal judgments, technology may improve the game, not wreck it.
So why shouldn’t FIFA explore new technologies related to judgment of goals? If implemented properly, you could maintain the integrity and flow of the game while not robbing teams of wins they rightly deserved.
Two major areas of controversy could be vastly improved by technology. One is ensuring the ball really did cross over the goal line. FIFA recently experimented with technology from Adidas where a microchip embedded in the ball is monitored by pitchside sensors. When the ball fully crosses the line, a buzzer alerts the center referee that the ball crossed the plane. This technology seemed to fit many criteria for acceptable new soccer technology. It was hidden, results were delivered quickly, and the technology was not something that could ‘creep’ elsewhere into the game. However, FIFA has determined that the technology is not ready for professional use yet. There were also concerns as to how the embedded electronics would affect the flight and physics of the soccer ball. Concerns about accuracy have led FIFA to pass on the technology this time around. This has led many to advocate for the use of goal mounted cameras to monitor the goal line plane, something that has been suggested before. While accurate, this would require a review by the officials and lead to a pause in the game, though it can be argued that when a goal is scored, even if it is overruled, there is already a pause in the action. Another concern is that something implemented by FIFA would need to be available across the globe and none of the suggested technologies are cheap, though one would think that goal cameras would be much cheaper than the embedded chip technology which uses a grid of stadium antennas to feed data into a high performance cluster of servers for computational analysis.
An interesting side note about the embedded chip technology is that the same chips have been designed to fit into player shin guards as well – can you say offside tracking?
Which brings us to the second area technology could be used to ensure goals are not taken away unjustly. Goals nullified for offside infractions are the most controversial in the game since the judgment calls are done in a split second on fast moving players. The assistant referee has to ensure the player is even with the 2nd to last defender at the moment the ball is kicked by his team. It is not an easy judgment call to make. To have a goal nullified makes it even more crucial that the right call be made. In a few years it is within the realm of possibility to have a system that takes player position snapshots every time the ball is kicked to see if an offside situation has arisen. A fourth official could have a computer screen showing a realtime stream of graphics showing where players were on the field when the ball was contacted.
But that is a ways away. For now, the most obvious technology is instant reply. Cameras recording the field action from high above can easily show if players were offside or not when the ball is kicked. The problem is that instant replay requires a review and that delays the game. I can’t imagine a situation where replays were allowed for any offside call. The flow of the game would be ruined, even if a coach were limited to X challenges ala the NFL and it cost them something if they lost the challenge. However when a goal is overturned, I think the delay would be worth it. You are talking about a huge impact on the match. Play has stopped already as the ball has entered the net. If the flag goes up, I think a team should be allowed to challenge the loss of a goal. The trick is should it be allowed to show when a player WAS offside and get a goal overturned even if the officials don’t indicate offside. It would be tough to say no to that since a team allowed a goal as the result of being offside is just as bad as a team being stripped of one when they weren’t offside.
I think a good case can be made for this if the implementation is done properly. Rules have to be set to avoid abuse. A challenge by a team has to penalize them if they lose like the NFL does to avoid spurious challenges. Or take the coaches out of it and mandate a review of any overturned goal (though this would mean a goal scored from an offside position and allowed to stand could not be overturned by replay) It happens rarely enough that it would not intrude on the beauty of the game and it would ensure fairness in what really counts – the score.
I’m a purist – I believe in the simplicity and beauty of the game. I don’t want to see the game overtaken by technology to the point that it loses its elegance and mystique. But teams should not be forced to accept defeat when they know they won outright. Selective use of technology could easily improve the game without tarnishing it.
On a final note, lest you think that the simplicity of the game will keep things low tech off the field during the World Cup. Not even close:
Each of the 12 stadiums in Germany will be equipped with at least 20 HDTV cameras and connected via dual fibre optic links to a designated fibre backbone capable of transporting data at speeds up to 480Gbit/s. Broadband satellite links will be held in reserve to connect the stadiums if anything should happen to the fibre connections.
Data traffic from all stadiums will flow to the International Broadcasting Centre in Munich, where technicians will process signals for the various broadcasting systems in the world.
All the tickets will have RFID tags in them as well and they are providing hard wired Ethernet ports to field photographers "to guarantee bandwidth to these users and believe cable is the best way to do so." Interesting.
So what do you think? Should FIFA allow for cameras in/behind the goal posts? Should offside be reviewable if a goal is at stake? Adding technology to something doesn’t always improve it, but if implemented properly, can have a positive impact. I for one hope FIFA continues with it’s ‘go slow’ approach considering the impacts their decisions have across the globe. However I also think the time has come for FIFA to selectively implement technology to ensure the game remains fair and just.