Monday, June 28, 2010

Soccer and technology - another bad romance

FIFA's ambivalent stance on adopting technology is understandable, since the increasing reliance on technology has several ramifications, much of which is not easily discernible especially when we frantically seek quick fixes to the age-old question of what constitutes fair-play - a multifaceted topic that's only further complicated by technology. I'm no luddite but the recent spate of bad calls during the World Cup games speaks more to the quality of individual referees than any systemic shortcoming of soccer refereeing that's only solvable with technology.

Technology ultimately slows down the game.
Successful hunters, CEOs, military commander etc. all have one thing in common, rapid-decision making in complex situations. FIFA's referee's training course, if one exists, would be perfect for grooming individuals with the attributes to be good "ultimate deciders". A clean line of command is enabled through a small well structured hierarchical team of referees and linesmen. This gives soccer's its elegant simplicity and fast paced tempo. With the exception of the offside rule, most rules are quite easily understood, even by toddlers! The few essential rules of soccer are quickly grasped by people across cultures, languages, gender, age, economic and social classes. Its this immediate shared understanding that gives soccer its mass appeal. The introduction of technology into this mix will simply make things more complex by adding yet another layer of decision-making that's almost guaranteed to slow down the game where almost every call could now potentially be subject to replay, undermining the judgment of linesmen and referees. Some obviously bad calls e.g. Frank Lampard's disallowed goal ( during the England vs Germany 2010 match, would have been helped by technology but also inadvertently open the door to even more opportunities for argument, debate and controversy. Just saying that its the refs decision is the simplest and most efficient method to resolve controversial decisions.

Technology does not always lead to optimal decisions.
Human judgment is vastly superior to technology since it operates non-linearly in multiple-dimensions. A referee's decisions compensates for unfairness, unnecessary aggression, unsportsmanlike behavior, weather conditions, player dynamics, human emotions and much more. The application of technology only provides a one-dimensional perspective, albeit from different viewing angles. Technology fails abysmally in capturing other aspects of the play and simply undermines the role of humans in making optimal decisions. Technology invariably dumbs us down since technology becomes a crutch lessening the need of referees and linesmen to stretch themselves and be more attuned the game. Good referees and linesmen play a huge role in making the game enjoyable.

Technology raises the barrier to entry.
The cost of cameras, sensors and additional staff to play games at the professional level will make soccer unfordable to most communities. Increasing reliance of technology in sports like tennis, American football, hockey, cricket etc. have made these sports more expensive to participate in at the professional level. Even high school sports now have greater funding requirements to form leagues and sports clubs are forced to increase membership fees to purchase additional technology and hire more staff to support their technology enabled games. Obviously, additional reliance on technology is great for peripheral businesses that are spawned to act as technology providers for these expensive sports. The overall effect unfortunately, is that technology serves to make these sports inclusive.

Technology may actually reduce soccer's popularity.
Soccer is the true people's sport - played across the economic and social spectrum, in some of the most destitute, impoverished and oppressed communities in the world, to the most affluent and privileged societies. Regardless of where the game is played - a dirt road, on the beach, a back-alley, a prison yard, a snow-laden field, a roof-top, courtyard etc. , the game is just a scaled down version of any World Cup game! Unlike most other major sports, the rules do not need to be drastically altered to accommodate the environment in which the game is being played in. The ability of the game of soccer to scale with minimal requirements, from a small game played by kids in an open space to game played at the professional level is what fires up the imagination of these kids. Its this scalability of soccer that has propelled it to its global popularity - almost a BILLION World Cup viewers.

Rather than looking at technology as a quick fix to a few, obviously bad calls, lets figure out better ways to improve the selection and training of referees and linesman. By carefully balancing a referee's or linesman's experience, track record and sense of impartiality, we can significantly reduce the frequency of bad calls. Maybe FIFA can adopt a process similar to "jury selection" or teams could democratically select referees and linesmen from a pool of candidates preselected by FIFA... No doubt, there are many better ideas out there, so lets figure out how to improve this fairness coefficient in soccer through some common sense methods rather than simply capitulating to technology for quick fixes which will ultimately prove to be detrimental to the soccer's universal appeal. Relying on human judgment however fallible re-calibrates our perspective of the world - a world that is more human-centered rather than hurtling down this trajectory towards technological utopia.
[Published in Mail & Guardian - SportsLeader posted on Wednesday, July 1, 2010]


  1. I'm in favor of some forms of technology: perhaps a sensor that indicates when a ball has gone over the line. I don't think it's an all-or-nothing proposition.

    Failing that, they need more refs on the field. One ref and two linesmen trying to keep track of 22 people where as much action is happening off the ball as on it is simply not enough. If FIFA is going to reject technology, it's going to have to compensate with additional manpower.

  2. Nope, I still need convincing that sensor technology is going to improve the game and reduce controversy. Besides many of these sensor technologies are subject to errors, drift etc and may need regular maintenance, recalibration... to be absolutely fair. All this screwing around with technology can only drive the total cost of deploying this technology in one direction - UP. Furthermore, most technologies are not foolproof. Its not inconceivable that, depending on the sensor technology used, some crazy fans, like yours truly, together with his partners in crime, could conceivably figure out a way to electronically jam the signal through the use of strategically placed "cellphones" by "fans" sitting within line of sight of their favorite goalie. See, its much harder to to use jedi mind tricks on a human referee though, isn't it? Yeah, I know its far fetched but hey, its still possible!

    Anyway, my purist streak prevents me from being seduced by the "reasonableness" of your technological solution. I'd prefer adding two additional linesmen instead. Lets keep it real ;-)

  3. aaaahhh...i see we have a digital immigrant in our midsts. boo for you. who's the neocon now, grandpa.

  4. you undermine your own interesting ideas by using sloppy grammar. why the self-sabotage?

  5. Let's remove all technology from the game. Don't allow cameras near the ground! Only those who have paid for tickets and can physically go to the game are allowed to watch. And no reporters allowed either.

    Do you see which way this is going? This is the 21st century, let's use whatever technology is available to ensure that the ref's bias is removed from the game. It works for cricket, tennis, athletics, rugby, etc. Why should football be excluded?