Promotional: Why is big tournament football technology so patchy?

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The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was, without question, the most technologically advanced ever. In short, it was the first seriously competitive international tournament to employ technology in a number of new ways – the most obvious being goal-line technology of course.

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And with so much at stake in major football competitions these days, it seems a given that technology should be used to its fullest effect to iron out human errors – in much the same way as it has been used in both types of rugby, tennis, cricket, snooker, squash and other sports for a number of years now. In short, sports fans yearn for definitive results over crucial decisions – findings which are completely unequivocal whenever possible.

Even the previously feared delays in play have become part and parcel of the entertainment; rugby league fans cheer on the “try / no-try” video referee’s decisions, and the same happens each Wimbledon over Hawk-Eye’s line calls. At the same time, sports fans don’t want to see too much technology employed for its own sake – nor any unnecessary delays in play. In other words – technology should be kept for the really big decisions only.

In some sports areas, as with “try / no-try” video ref decisions in rugby league, for example, there is sometimes a qualitative judgement element involved. This would be the case in football, for example, if technology were to be used for penalty decisions, sendings-off, bookings, free kicks or offside decisions etc. In these cases, it would be a matter for some kind of video referee to be making decisions whilst play continued, overriding the on-pitch referee’s decisions only when necessary.

But this kind of remote qualitative override decision seems a long way off – such has been the resistance to introducing technology in football even at the goal-line level. It was, perhaps, Frank Lampard’s disallowed long-range “equalizer” for England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that helped usher in goal-line technology by FIFA in time for Brazil 2014. Lampard’s shot crashed off the underside of the crossbar, clearly crossing the line by a couple of feet, yet was disallowed by the referee who wasn’t in a great position to see it. Inexplicably, the linesman who was in a good position, kept his flag down. This was just before half-time and would have meant England had turned around a two-goal deficit. It would also, of course, have changed the whole complexion of the match at a crucial juncture. As it was, the England players went in at half-time feeling utterly dejected.

Obviously, the application of goal-line technology would have meant fair play was ensured and the match was so high-profile, and the human decision so glaringly inaccurate, that FIFA had to acknowledge that technology could have been helpful.

After testing various competing systems, FIFA announced in 2012 that it would introduce a “GoalControl” camera-based technology system in time for the 2013 Confederations Cup – and as a test-bed for the World Cup the following year. This all came to pass and the 4D GoalControl system, which employs 14 ultra high-speed cameras in each stadium was used in Brazil. Ironically, GoalControl is a German company. Their system fits seven high-speed cameras covering each goalmouth to each stadium roof. These are linked to an image-processing computer, which filters out any non-ball shaped objects and accurately plots the ball’s position. It is accurate to within a couple of millimeters.

France became the first nation in a World Cup to benefit from GoalControl’s goal-line technology, when their second goal, by Karim Benzema, over Honduras was proven to have crossed the line. France went on to win the match 3-0.

Meanwhile the English Football Association also introduced goal-line technology in time for the Premier League’s 2013-14 season, using the competing technology “Hawk-Eye” (as used at Wimbledon).

So, with clear precedents in place in major national and international tournaments, it seems rather odd, to say the least, that the world’s biggest club tournament currently uses no technology whatsoever. Ironically, perhaps, the Champions League features heavily in the list of the best tech sports video games ever, yet doesn’t currently employ any technology itself in assisting the referees.

The attention on the Champions League seems to grow each year. It is a multi-million dollar business with the top teams from the top leagues fighting it out through the winter to see who emerges as the continent’s best during May. Last season’s winners, Real Madrid, are arguably the biggest club in the world. They recently splashed the cash buying the World Cup’s Golden Boot winner, James Rodriguez, from Monaco for around 90 million euros, to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, for whom they paid 100 million euros last year.

So why is it, that with so much at stake, the Champions League remains open to the kind of costly errors we’ve seen in other major competitions? Well, bizarrely, it’s a question of cost according to UEFA’s French President, Michel Platini. Monsieur Platini is on record as stating that he does want a goal-line technology system in place in his own country in time for the Euro 2016 tournament. But when it comes to the Champions League, it seems the anticipated c. £40 million price tag is too high – and Platini believes the cash would be better spent on grassroots projects.

He has a valid point and most football fans believe in grassroots development of the game. But at a relatively measly £40 million, the Champions League seems woefully out of tech-step with the rest of big tournament football around the globe. Surely, the introduction of goal-line technology has now paved the way for further developments to assist the referees. And as we saw in Brazil, football fans enjoy the spectacle even more when there is less room for doubt.

Tech Digest Correspondent