Despite being hailed as the most popular sport in the world, football has often been slow to adapt and keep up with the times, especially when it comes to technological advances.
Recent years have seen the introduction of both goal-line technology and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), but it has often felt like the sport has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Technology on the football pitch has always been treated with suspicion, with Sepp Blatter famously declaring the introduction of VAR at the 2018 World Cup to be a “not very clever” move.
Teething problems and resistance to new technology
VAR is now utilised in most of the top European football leagues since its first live trial between Dutch sides PSV and FC Eindhoven in 2016.
While the tech is now prevalent in world football, that has not stopped criticism of the system from fans and administrators alike. Some feel that it has lengthened games and led to players hesitating to celebrate goals in case it is chalked off upon video replay, while others think a lack of clarity and consistency is a huge problem.
Human error is definitely a concern, with referees still required to judge games via video replay to prevent errors from their counterparts on the field.
Goal-line tech in the form of the Hawk-Eye system was also introduced during the 2013/14 season, while FIFA utilised GoalControl during the 2014 World Cup.
While its implementation seemed straightforward enough and fairly unobstrusive, it still had its share of doubters including then-FIFA president Blatter. Many others felt it would remove the human element from the game and take away the opportunity to banter about such errors.
“Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. We don't do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football.” - Sepp Blatter.
Several high profile incidents have softened opposition to the tech, including Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal at the 2010 World Cup when the ball clearly crossed the line.
Given the relentless criticism from some quarters, and the maddening inconsistency in applying tech in football, perhaps the World Game can take some pointers from other sports that have implemented various new technologies to some success.
Reducing the margin of error in tennis
Hawk-Eye has been utilised at the highest levels of sport long before its introduction to football, with the sport of tennis being one such example.
The 2006 US Open was the first time the system was implemented in the sport, with players allowed to challenge line calls. Other major tournaments soon followed suit, with a notable exception being the French Open which is held on clay and thus can rely on marks left behind by the ball impacting the court.
Though there have been minor controversies, mostly due to margin of error, Hawk-Eye’s implementation has been relatively smooth.
This has led to the 2020 US Open and 2021 Australian Open using Hawk-Eye Live, an updated system involving 10 cameras to call shots in real time, in place of line judges to reduce personnel during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Making marginal calls in cricket
Cricket, likewise, uses the Hawk-Eye system alongside the New Zealand-based Virtual Eye as part of its Decision Review System (DRS), which has generated a positive response among players and fans.
Since 1992, the on-field Test Match umpire has been able to refer decisions to a third umpire for review via TV replays, with player reviews allowed in 2008.
The DRS system was strengthened with Hawk-Eye in 2008, although it had been used in television broadcasts since 2001, to track the trajectory of bowled balls and determine whether it would have hit the stumps.
The current DRS systems also includes Real Time Snicko (RTS) which involves directional microphones to catch small sounds made when the bowled ball hits either bat or pad, and Hot Spot, an infra-red imaging system that shows when a ball finds its mark on bat or pad.
Speeding up games in baseball
Major League Baseball (MLB) introduced the use of PitchCom — a wireless communication system allowing a catcher to request pitches from his pitcher without using visible signals.
This was implemented in the wake of the recent Houston Astros sign stealing scandal, when the team was found guilty in 2020 of using a camera system to steal the signs of opposing teams during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Catchers utilising PitchCom can press buttons on a pre-programmed nine-button keypad to indicate the type of pitch and desired location, which the pitcher will receive via a small wireless receiver in their baseball cap.
While not every MLB team has opted to use the technology, and some have complained about difficulty receiving instructions over crowd noise, most have reacted positively to its implementation and noticed how it has sped up games.
Give it time, do it right
In an age when society is learning to embrace modern technology, football risks falling by the wayside if it refuses to change. Football tech, when implemented correctly, has the potential to change the game for the better while still allowing a reasonable margin of error.
But while fans and administrators should give tech a chance, those in charge of running the game should also ensure that these technologies are utilised correctly and for the right reasons. Spending minutes trying to figure out if a striker’s big toe has strayed offside, only to then miss an egregious foul up the other end of the pitch, is unacceptable.
Education is required on both sides of the divide if football and technology are to co-exist. Examples from other sports have shown that by embracing modern advances, football can indeed grow for the better.