Is it time to substitute the ref?

Cricket and tennis have embraced new technology in the pursuit of a more accurate score. But football is dragging its boots. Eliminating human error will improve the game, argues Josh Sims

I reckon 90 per cent of the time referees can rely on their own judgement and reach a fair decision," says Bob Jamieson. "But 10 per cent of the time it's questionable. They make errors. And what if they make that kind of error in the World Cup Final this summer?" That kind of error, as Jamieson, an athlete turned technology entrepreneur refers to it, would be a football crossing the goal line but, unseen by the referee, a goal not being awarded.

Jamieson has seen this kind of problem before, watching ice hockey when he lived in Canada. It was what prompted him to devise a way to place a radio transponder – of the kind used to record lap times on F1 racing cars accurately and within 1/1000th of second, but also now on Tour De France cyclists and marathon runners – inside an ice hockey puck and an unobtrusive magnetic field around the goal mouth. The benefit is simple: if the puck crosses the line, it breaks the field, triggering a buzz in a device carried or worn by the referee. "Every time I watched a game, there was always an argument about whether the puck crossed the line," he recalls. "That's a debate that can be solved easily."

But not without controversy. Jamieson's company Goal Line Technology has since spent the last two years developing a similar, affordable system for football, in partnership with Tag Heuer Sports Timing and a Dutch company that makes bladders – inside which the transponder technology can be suspended inside a football. He is not alone: Cairos, a German technology company, has also teamed up with Adidas to develop a similar device, while Hawkeye is a well-established electronic eye-based system used in tennis and cricket. And yet earlier this year IFAB, the International Football Association Board, the body that controls the laws of soccer, rejected proposals to introduce the technology, despite the Football Association being in favour of further investigation.

The argument against? Simply that technology has no place in football, which in part thrives on the heated debate that comes from having a human element; that to introduce one technology would open the floodgates. But IFAB does not rule out the notion of having an extra official behind the goal, an idea which has been trialled this season in the UEFA Europa League. Nor does it think of its history – lo-fi it may have been, but once there was no net on a goal, until someone realised it would be useful in determining whether the ball had passed between the posts.

With beautiful timing, the beautiful game had something to debate just hours after the decision was reached, when Birmingham's Liam Ridgewell headed a goal in his side's 2-0 defeat to Portsmouth in the FA Cup quarter-final. The goal was disallowed, despite replays clearly showing the ball had crossed the line before the keeper blocked it. England's 1966 World Cup glory was sealed with just such a dubious goal which was allowed. "It's no secret we're slightly disappointed with the IFAB decision," says the FA's director of football services Jonathan Hall. "With key decisions technology would make the game fairer." Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger was blunter: the decision is "beyond comprehension".

"Football is a great sport but it's Victorian in its approach – men running up and down the sideline with a flag, like they used to do in front of cars when they were pioneered," says Jamieson, who has more conspiratorial theories about why IFAB reached is decision – namely that it could not upset major sponsor Adidas by using another company's system, but nor could it take Adidas's without risking legal action from football's other big sporting-goods sponsors. "The introduction of goal line technology to football is a no-brainer. It makes no negative difference to the game, the rules or the players. But it does to the referee and to the idea of fairness, which you'd imagine would be paramount in a sport with so much money invested in it."

Indeed, if the spirit of good sportsmanship is on the wane, as many claim, perhaps such gadgetry is a way to help revive it. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School and a Manchester City fan, suggests that knowing the systems are there to prevent one method of cheating (or a genuine mistake in one's judgement) can only be a good thing for sport.

"Not having such technology is an affront to good sportsmanship – it stops those who have put so much effort into their work being the victim of a bad decision and removes an excuse for losing," says Cooper. "It's also needed because there has been a decline in sportsmanship in elite football especially. Players are loyal chiefly to themselves – they want their team to advance so they advance. It's an international phenomenon in the workplace in general. There's very little employer-employee commitment."

Sportsmanship's rarity is perhaps why Brian Davis's otherwise unexciting story made the news in April. Davis had a chance to win his first victory on the Verizon Heritage PGA Tour. The golfer played a remarkable shot from the rough to leave him 30ft short of the pin, but then summoned the tournament director over to explain that he thought he may have inadvertently moved a loose impediment to his shot on his back-swing, as prohibited by the rules. He got a two-stroke penalty for his honesty after officials examined a TV replay.

"The spirit of sportsmanship only seems to have survived in sports that once had the idea of officiating themselves, with an umpire overseeing it. But too often now a player seems to think a bad decision that goes in their favour is fine as it only cancels out one that went against them the week before," says Paul Hawkins, managing director of Hawkeye. He cites the classic 2008 Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in which a third set tie-break point would have gone to Nadal had the magic eye not over-ruled in Federer's favour, giving him the chance for a comeback he would otherwise have lost.

"But an alternative, the use of technology, does not lead to a sport run by machines. That's an idea typically held by older people," Hawkins adds. "Younger people who have grown up with consumer electronics are open to it. Tennis, for example, has got infinitely better for its introduction. You don't have all those big arguments on court. No game has every decision made absolutely correctly. But technology is about increasing the percentage of correct decisions."



C ertainly, football's official antipathy to technology – for the time-being at least – makes it seem rather antiquated. After all, sport has long been riven with technology, not only to enhance performance, from the power play brought by nano-material tennis racquets to Speedo's revolutionary, record-breaking Fastskin swim-suits, but to ensure fair play and accurate record. The seminal example came almost 40 years ago, in 1972, when Tim McKee was competing in the 400-metre individual swimming medley. Unfortunately for him, this was the first year of fully automatic timing for the sport at the pro level, seeing in this case a switch from the use of stopwatches to electronic touch-pads at either end of the pool – and although timings were, for this event, now officially upgraded from one-tenth to one-hundredth of a second accuracy, the new equipment actually recorded it to one-thousanth.

And there lay the rub: by the official measurement McKee tied with a fellow competitor. By the machine's he lost by two-thousanths of a second. As a report at the time stated, that's the difference that could have been made by a slightly thicker coat of paint at the end of McKee's lane, the most miniscule disparity in the shape of the pool or, in the case of track events, the tiniest degree that a finishing line camera might be out of line. Whether it scans the finish line 4,000 times a second or not – and, these days, it does – it needs to look the right way. To put these fractions in perspective, the blink of a human eye takes two-hundredths of a second. You literally couldn't see who won without the technology – much as a football referee might not be able to see whether a ball crossed a line from a dozen yards away.

Goal line technology, in contrast, simply ensures due reward or disallows it when not deserved – saving spectators at home from possible heart attacks, given that the action replays they are privy to, but the referee not, may well show how mistaken a decision might be. The technology could equally well be applied to the offside rule – this would entail players wearing perhaps a wristband embedded with a transponder chip – and to other sports such as basketball and netball, to determine if the ball has passed through the hoop before being palmed away. It is being explored in ice hockey in the UK, with a regional trial set to start this summer, and with the International Ice Hockey Federation likely to give permission for the technology's trial installation in 10 stadia across the UK next year. A trial is also in the pipeline for rugby league too, to better adjudicate on the 40-20 rule introduced in 1997. Many remain convinced that football will have to introduce the technology sooner or later too.

"All it will take is a goal line incident in a major match or one in which two extra officials have already been introduced," believes Hawkins. "Not to have it in a sport where it's needed suggests the sport is ultimately down to luck, that it's not in the hands of the players, that it's all about taking part and who cares who wins. Technology can ensure the story of the game is about the players and their performance and not controversy. It makes sport more human, not less."

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