Goal-Line Technology Will Help Settle World Cup Scores

But there's still plenty left to blame on the human ref.

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Jun 13 2014, 11:30am
Image: GoalControl

There’s been no short supply of controversy around this year’s World Cup, and now the actual tournament has kicked off—and after that rather iffy penalty awarded to Brazil in their first match against Croatia last night—we can expect to see some on the pitch too.

But this year at least, there shouldn’t be any dispute over one pretty vital point of the game: whether the ball is in the goal or not. With so few goals scored in a match, you might think it wouldn’t be too hard to notice when it actually does happen, but recent history would prove you wrong. Just go back to the 2010 World Cup and poor Frank Lampard’s woefully uncounted non-goal goal. The England player clearly kicked the ball over the goal-line—which is, after all, the one thing he and his pals are paid millions to do—but somehow the referee didn’t see it. England lost the match. The injustice still burns.

Image: GoalControl

It’s that incident, and others like it, that led FIFA to finally adopt goal line technology, and Brazil is the first World Cup to use it. The tech that FIFA selected comes from German company GoalControl. Over email from Brazil, where they’ve set up the system in all 12 stadiums, the team answered some of my questions about the tech, and how much it will really settle those just-ins and near-misses. Not that we needed any computer to confirm any of the pretty clear-cut goals in yesterday's match.

Naturally, the whole point of this kind of tech is to reduce any margin for error, so accuracy and security is paramount. GoalControl told me they were “totally confident” the technology would work without any problems. They’ve tested it at different stadiums, in different conditions, and it’s already been used in the Confederations Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup last year. Now it’s in Brazil, the system in each stadium has passed a final installation test. 

The company has also claimed that the system is totally unhackable (which is lucky, seeing as Anonymous aren't too  happy with the World Cup proceedings), and I asked how they could be so sure. First up, there’s no internet connection, which removes a whole host of potential vulnerabilities. “Another important fact to point out is that our transmission code of the sender is extremely secure and has got a frequently changing encrypted code,” Dittrich explained. “We are not using the wifi/LAN frequency band of 2.4 GHz.”

The system doesn’t actually sit on the goal-line, or the pitch at all. The 14 cameras are mounted around the stadium, seven for each goal, to give a full view of the whole penalty area. When the ball enters that space, they track it continuously from seven angles. If it crosses the goal line, an encrypted message is sent to a watch that the referee wears. Within a second of the goal, the watch vibrates and sends a visual signal, and that’s all the info they get: It’s meant to be a simple, yes/no confirmation.

But what if, I asked, the ball was halfway over the goal-line. Would it be able to make the call? “Halfway is no goal—of course!” GoalControl spokesperson Rolf Dittrich said. “Only when the ball passes the goal-line completely, the system sends a vibration and optical signal to the officials’ watches. The accuracy of goal detection is about 5 mm!” I wonder how long until someone takes that half-centimetre to task?

Image: GoalControl

The company also makes a product called GoalControl-Replay, which is an intriguing hint at where football technology could continue to head. After a goal recorded by the goal-line system, it renders a virtual image of the ball on the pitch, which could be shown to spectators to show the goal-line view. While it's not suggested that particular function could be used by officials to question decisions, it certainly nods to the argument over whether football should also start using video replays so controversial referee judgments can be challenged. Like if a soft penalty is awarded because a player dives at the lightest touch from an opponent, for instance. 

While GoalControl is only intended to be used at the goal-line, Dittrich suggested the technology could be put to other uses. “Because of the fact that the system is camera-based, additional applications are conceivable,” he said. 

In the meantime, even if goal-line tech means we won’t see a repeat of Lampard in England’s game tomorrow, there’ll likely be something else we can blame on the ref if we lose. And do we really want to lose that habit?