A Goal or Not a Goal: Official Assisted Technology Systems

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

Written by Wesley Rasdorf.

Editor’s Note: This is a 2000-word article, but every single word of it is worth reading. Wesley has made an excellent case for introducing technology to help referees, and despite his use of the term ‘soccer’, it’s a smashing (if long) article. Make sure you read it fully.

Uncertainty, controversy and ambivalence continue to surround professional soccer. An appointed FIFA referee enforces the laws of the game in cooperation with assistant referees. Despite their professionalism, good faith, and honest judgments, one cannot ignore the subjectivity, human error, and poor perceptions that coincide with a prompt decision. Having studied, mastered and applied the rules, we presume it is the duty and responsibility of officials calls to be made in the best interests of soccer.

Yet, we aren’t perfect. Even the best, most informed, and well intentioned people make decisions that, in hindsight, are hasty. As much as we loathe and scrutinize officials for not getting it right all the time, our criticism is warranted. Officials should be held to a higher standard and need to be publically censured for their errors in judgment because it is their professional opinions that rule in a soccer match. It keeps them on their toes! However, that is not to say we shouldn’t make their job easier. While it is reasonable check to criticize imperfect referees’ judgments, a fair balance would be rewarding them use of official assisted technology systems (OATS).

We expect matches to be managed according to the rules, in a fair, unbiased manner. Putting soccer officials under a microscope reveals matches aren’t always properly governed. Team administration, players, coaches, fans, owners, gamblers, and all others that have an interest in the outcome on the pitch, rely on officials to do their jobs correctly. Yet, referees continue to endorse unwarranted penalty kicks, offside calls and goals. These mistakes have a tremendous impact on the result of a game because they create monetary losses for fans, teams, players, coaches, and all related parties. Wins and losses, player performance and competitive balance are all affected by referee injustice. When this equity is jeopardized due to a faulty verdict, catastrophic losses accrue.

According to UEFA, in the 2006 Champions League Final, a significant $5 million in earnings difference exists, – $13 million for the winner, compared to $8 million for the loser. As you can see, a single bad call, like awarding a penalty kick (PK) for a “dive,” could have a substantial impact on the amount of total revenues that would go to the winning and losing clubs. This money offsets expenses in the form of players’ salaries, team equipment, youth development, etc.

An unfair judgment also negatively impacts fan equity and disgruntles soccer supporters, owners, bettors, merchants, advertisers, fanatics, sponsors, media, etc. whom all have investments in the match. And the most noteworthy loser is FIFA, whom suffers ultimately from lost value in terms of customers, fairness, respect, reputation, etc. The consequences are mind-boggling. Referee mistreatment due to a missed offside call, a “hand of god” goal, or a tally awarded where the ball has never actually crossed the goal line, could cost a team an enormous sum.

Without change, erroneous decisions will continue to lead to questionable tournament winners, goals that never were, and history changing calls. When officials make errors, they are often significant to the game and apparent to those watching it. Look at some of these examples. Cannobio’s “goal” to upset Real Madrid, Hurst’s “goal” in the 1966 World Cup Final (a different angle), a true Berti goal disallowed, Adriano scoring from an offside position, Fowler is called “offside” and Viera’s “header”. As we deal with these faulty determinations, it is very apparent we should look at alternatives to solve and prevent future occurrences. It is resolved that FIFA implement new technologies to improve officiating accuracy during matches.

Looking back at these calamities, OATS development is necessary for the future of soccer. Advances in technology have not only allowed referees to officiate more accurately, but OATS now provide additional information for an official to consider in making their determination. With OATS, a referee still acts on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the decision made was in accordance with the rules of the game and in the best interests of the sport. OATS rest on the assumptions of objectivity and accuracy. This evidentiary model reveals the “scientific truth” to the referee, showing, plainly and objectively, what happened on the play to the nearest millimeter.

Virtually every major professional sports league in America has adopted some form of OATS, whether it is instant replay in the NBA, Hawk Eye at U.S. Open, or the “challenge review” in the NFL. OATS are now, more than ever, in the public eye. To compete in America, soccer must enhance the accuracy of their officiating.

For example, a controversial issue in American eyes is deciding whether a striker was “tripped” and fouled, or merely “flopped,” diving to attempt to draw a penalty. We have seen highly skilled, experienced, and well positioned referees make the wrong decision on such a play that would be convincingly refuted by OATS. However, since OATS has not been adopted, the referee would not have been able to see a replay and correct the error. Furthermore, by supporting officials, rather than exposing them to a bevy of criticism, OATS would encourage making the proper, even if unpopular, decisions.

OATS would be a combination of replay review and computer generated line imagery (CGLI). First, replay review would occur strictly after a goal, much like that initiated in the NBA, where only a last second shot is reviewable. Here, OATS would be triggered automatically following a signaled goal to determine, if in fact, a goal was actually scored. The officials would judge the legality of the goal in these situations based on evidence to determine the following issues:

  1. Whether the ball completely crossed the goal line.
  2. Prior to the goal, whether the ball or player(s) committed a violation (i.e. offside, out of bounds, handling of the ball, goalkeeper possession, etc.).
  3. Whether a called foul, committed by a player in 18-yard box, is indeed a PK. If it is determined that no foul was committed, the called PK should be overturned, and possession forfeited to the opposing team.
  4. All replay reviews would be conducted by the officials gathering as much information as possible. With conflict, the center official would make the final decision.
  5. The call made by the game officials during play would be reversed only when OATS provide the officials with “clear and conclusive” evidence to do so.

NOTE: The officials would be permitted to utilize instant replay to determine how much time should be added on for the review as well.

Overall, OATS does not attempt to assure a perfectly officiated contest. Instead, we recognize the vast number of plays in the sport requiring judgment calls by on-field officials to allow the game to flow naturally, thereby restricting the use of OATS to coincide only with soccer’s most crucial plays. Consequently, soccer provides a salient example of balancing concerns over integrity of the game versus the introduction of new technology.

Second, for purposes of this reform, CGLI would be implemented, similar to the “yellow line/first down” marker in the NFL. CGLI would show the exact position of the last defender in comparison to the attacker(s) for accurately determining offside calls. This electronic line judging system, would flawlessly detect the offside position the moment the ball was played, perfecting these often disparaged decisions by referees.

Critics of OATS will argue its emergence threatens soccer’s foundation. They believe in the status quo and deem OATS a disruptive force that will alter the fabric of the game. Yet, in America, soccer is one of the only sports not to use OATS. Empowering OATS would give soccer a competitive advantage in terms of media advertising. Determinations based on instant replay video footage are afforded some time for consideration and depend on the images and viewpoints captured. By allotting a short commercial break, soccer molds into the American sports television landscape, generating additional profits and boosting popularity.

FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, continues to rule out the use of video review during games, in part because there would be no cost effective way to implement it throughout the world. Yet, establishing this “quick intermission” would allow teams to generate more advertising revenue to cover these one-time setup expenses.

Suspending the game does foster delay, increases game length, and disrupts momentum, but more importantly the benefits OATS create in terms of value outweigh these costs – preserving the integrity of the game is priceless. The increased quality of on-field officiating, the increased accuracy that replays provide, and the increased safety net that OATS would encompass is well worth the price to alleviate the detriment caused by poor refereeing decisions.

Sepp Blatter, comments in an article, “Not a day goes by without technology making progress, and we, therefore, have a duty to at least examine whether new technology can be used for the good of the game.” FIFA agreed to use the microchip technology in 2005, but has not embraced the technology revolution. Combining OATS with FIFA’s already established ball with an embedded microchip, that signals to the referee whether it has crossed the goal line, could revolutionize the sport and instantly aid in referees’ performance.

Proponents of OATS believe it provides a unique vantage point, crucial for increased accuracy and encouraging integrity in the game. Adversaries urge that prompt and fair decisions are best achieved by allowing officials closer to the action, on the field, and able to perceive the characters and circumstances present at the time, make the call. This doesn’t account for human error; therefore we need a system in place to offset individual faults.

An incorrect ruling by the referee can alter the outcome of the game and deprive a team – players, coaches, and supporters of victory and the subsequent spoils. OATS would significantly reduce the number of incorrect and embarrassing decisions made by referees and will additionally heighten the duty of officials to make the correct calls. This resonates with fans who gain deeper trust as participants in the game, while OATS protects all parties from unfair losses. And because a referee’s ability to commit error is well established, this aptitude to err is not something that should be cultivated since OATS assures better officiating.

Another argument is that OATS promote hesitation in judgment because a referee’s initial decision is being deferred to technology, causing the game to suffer. Referees working in a high-pressure environment are accustomed to making instantaneous rulings in order to allow the game to flow smoothly, to protect the safety of players, and to avoid being perceived as uncertain in their judgments.

OATS aren’t negating referees’ autonomy in this respect, but are enforcing higher standards of competition rules, which promote more accurate officiating and purer competition. It preserves the integrity, fairness, and trust in the game because OATS assist referees’ competitive judgments in promoting fair play. Moreover, OATS focus officials’ judgments by enforcing responsibility for making the right call, resulting in more efficiency and fewer errors.

OATS may serve as a blessing and a curse for officials as FIFA considers its use. The unique nature and culture of the sport plays an integral role in the scope and method of adoption. While it provides a means for referees to correct their mistakes, technology also produces unwanted reform. Introducing OATS as a tool for referees to utilize, the fundamental nature of officiating remains unchanged. Referees’ reasoning, analysis of facts, and application of game rules in reaching a decision are only enhanced. Whether assisted by technology or relying solely on their own senses, referees are in the business of making better competitive judgments.

There have been a number of plays over the years that have caused soccer players, teams, and fans to call for the league to adopt OATS. As such, the technology debate in soccer is a critical issue. Sports leagues, teams and players want qualified officials to regulate their games and make correct, even if unpopular, calls based on the best information available. You be the ref!

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

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