World Cup soccer loves to hate high tech

Game's officials have been looking for technological aids for referees for years. But nothing seems to fit.

BERLIN--Fourteen minutes into Argentina's first World Cup match on June 10, a header bounced off the goalpost and into the Ivory Coast keeper's hands--and maybe all the way across the goal line.

Was it a goal? The Argentines thought so. A computer-assisted replay on German television made it appear so. But the referee had already called it as a save, and the game went on.

The issue was again thrown into relief on Sunday, when a French shot appeared to have gone over South Korea's goal line, but was not called as a goal. The game ultimately finished in a 1-1 tie.

It's ambiguities like these, debated endlessly by bloggers and sports fans, that a new generation of soccer technology aims to avoid. But despite promising recent technology tests, this year's World Cup in Germany still lacks any high-tech help that might settle questions of contested goals or other controversial calls.

"The technology we're looking for, we can't find yet," said George Cumming, a former Head of Refereeing for the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer's international governing body. "We've tried. The technology has developed, but I think it hasn't solved this problem."

The resistance to new technology highlights a cultural gulf between soccer and most professional sports in the United States, which have long used instant replay and other high-tech aids to help referees make the right call.

American football has used video replay systems to check referees' calls for more than half a decade. Basketball referees use replay systems to make sure players are shooting within the time allotted by the shot clock. But soccer officials and fans worldwide are adamant that the smooth flow of their game not be interrupted--even if that means sacrificing perfect accuracy.

Many deem video playback systems, which must be monitored by someone off-field, an unacceptable infringement on the referee's traditionally complete control over the game's play. A purist camp even points to referees' human frailty as an integral part of the game.

World Cup tech

"What referees see is what they feel from the game, what experience tells them is happening, and what their fatigue level allows them to see, just like the players," said Chuck Fleischer, a longtime U.S.-based referee, and an editor at AskTheRef.com, a popular soccer Web site. "The human eye is not as quick as a computer, but the human mind can pick up all the nuances, all the smells, the looks on people's faces, and make a decision."

This skepticism doesn't mean that soccer's powers-that-be aren't looking for a good high-tech assistant, however.

As long as a decade ago, FIFA officials approached researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for help. They came up with nothing that could satisfy the league's stringent requirements, however. Later, an independent Italian inventor approached them with his own idea for a goal-identifying chip inside the ball. Officials tested it, and found it wanting.

A ball, a chip--a goal?
The latest and most promising prospect has been a "smartball" loaded with an RFID chip, jointly developed by German companies Cairos Technologies and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, an engineering research and software development company, along with the Adidas athletic clothing and shoe company.

 

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