How tech is helping World Cup refs make the right calls How tech is helping World Cup refs make the right calls
But is this really the right way forward for the game? How tech is helping World Cup refs make the right calls

Thanks to major advances in computing power, the arrival of the Internet of Things, quantum computing, and all kinds of other IT technologies, the world in 2018 is a very exciting place. IT solutions that were unheard-of even a few years ago are in place and working to make companies better, more efficient, faster, and more customer-centric than ever before.

But technology is also affecting other areas of life and making them better, like sport. For years now, golf, cricket, tennis and rugby have had Hawk-Eye technology that tracks the trajectory of each sport’s ball, allowing third umpires that can verify umpire calls and for golf viewers to see where each hard-to-see ball goes.

It’s added tremendously to the viewing experience and attracted new fans to those sports the world over, not to mention bringing a sense of fairness and accuracy to each game’s refereeing. Well, for the most part, anyway – some rugby refs still get things wrong despite all the help on offer. Looking at you, Pearce.

One sport has resisted technological change more than others: soccer. This is puzzling, as it is literally the most popular sport on Earth with an estimated 3.5 billion fans around the world, and 265 million active players.

Surely, adding technologies to it would enhance, rather than take away from, the viewing experience? One would certainly think so.

Despite this, soccer has been staunchly anti-technology for the longest time.

Blatter did it

There’s a case to be made that this is FIFA ex-president Sepp Blatter’s fault, as he often argued during his tenure at the helm of the organisation that “Technology would be a passion-killer“, and that “…the sport should keep its human element”.

“When you are in a football match there is no social level, everybody is the same and everybody in the stadium and at their television is an expert,” he said at a media briefing ahead of the start of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“Everybody is an expert and that is why we are not going into technology on the field of play, because if you have technology on the field of play, then there are no more experts,” he said at the time.

For anyone who likes what tech has done for other sports, it’s a short-sighted argument. But perhaps Blatter meant that it’s the inflammatory nature of controversial calls by refs that keeps fans glued to the game (and at each other’s’ throats), and that he didn’t care about accuracy or fairness (or even wrong or right), just that people were watching.

Perhaps.

On that front, he had a point, but for anyone who cares more about fairness and accuracy than the emotionality of the game, his view was a definite step in the wrong direction. So for them it’s probably a good thing that FIFA has a new president.

The Re-Tool

Soccer has adopted plenty of technology in the last three years, and FIFA today has an array of tools at its disposal that are there to keep referees honest and results fair.

This is quite apparent in the way the Soccer World Cup that’s currently happening in #Russia2018 is being covered, because for the first time in history, a Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) is being used that helps referees make the right calls during World Cup games.

It’s not the first time ever, though, as VAR was used last year in several FA Cup and Bundesliga games. The results back then were rather controversial as VAR allowed some things it shouldn’t have while not picking up on others, leading to a fair amount of controversy, and the same has happened in some of the World Cup games so far. VAR, as it is, is not yet perfect.

How VAR works

Here’s what VAR does: it allows assistant referees to view instant replays of the on-field action and communicate with the referee over wireless headsets when something game-changing has happened that he hasn’t noticed.

The system monitors four key elements of each game: goals, penalties, red cards, and cases of mistaken identity, and helps referees sort out real fouls from their less-accurate cousins, fake fouls.

Of course, as is rightly the case, the ref has the final say on what gets actioned and what doesn’t – the VAR system is just there to assist them make the right calls.

Here’s an official FIFA video that does a good job of explaining the VAR system:

Big Data and… soccer?

As has been talked about before on this blog, big data is not just for business: it’s also being applied to sports, sports stadia, and individual and team performance. Computers are crunching the numbers generated by thousands of IoT sensors and high-tech cameras to tell coaches how players are performing, fans where to sit and where to find refreshments once in the stadia, and even where the bathrooms are and what the traffic is like to and from the location.

For coaches, these advances allow them to plan strategies and change tack mid-game to take advantage of the most up-to-date and accurate information that’s made available to them.

And that’s only going to become more prevalent in the sports world, to the point where teams could, some day (if they aren’t already), be chosen by an algorithm rather than an actual coach.

But is this really the right way forward?

Will the sport still have soul?

The problem with VAR, and the application of technology in general to soccer, is that many fans of soccer, believe that it’s an inherently emotional game that can’t be governed or reined in or improved by analyses of exact angles, moment-by-moment action replays or sensors in the goal mouth, because soccer is not an exact game.

It’s immune to mathematics, they believe, and exists more like a wild child who can’t be tamed, and for whom any form of control would mean its death.

The essence of the game, to some, is less to do with “did the ball go in” or “did that man fairly tackle that other man”, and more to do with the emotional connection of fans to their clubs and countries, to the experience of being in the stadium with thousands of other people roaring their support, and those rare moments when the chaos on the field comes together in a perfectly-executed demonstration of seemingly inhuman skill that causes much excitement and emotion to rise up and bubble over.

Stopping everything for a computer system to verify whether a goal is legitimate, kind of stops that all in its tracks.

The rub

And therein lies the rub. Technology exists to make referee calls fairer, more accurate, and better all round, to verify goals scored and players tackled, and to pick up things that human eyes sometimes miss. And since games are all about rules, and rules being enforced fairly so that the best possible outcome can be attained for all involved, it makes sense. But is it really necessary for soccer?

Those interested in cold hard facts and a reality that’s black and white (and who want to sell tech solutions to owners of football clubs/stadia) would likely argue that yes, it is.

But for those whose soccer affinity is emotional, and who thrive on the uncertainty of the game and the magic that seems to happen when it all comes together in those singularly amazing moments that can’t be quantified by ones and zeroes, that answer is a definite no.

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