28 June 2010

No science, only human error

Following England's defeat to Germany in the Soccer World Cup and the goal that was not to be, Dr Ross Tucker adds his opinion on science versus human error.


Following England's defeat to Germany in the Soccer World Cup and the goal that was not to be, Dr Ross Tucker adds his opinion on science versus human error.

The SWC Round of 16 has produced three great matches so far, and one highly controversial moment.  England vs. Germany was a fabulous match, end to end, and far more open than many might have expected, given the history of penalties between the sides. In the end, Germany won handsomely, and for good reason - they were excellent, and deserved the win and the margin of victory.

Sadly, however, the game will be debated for an amazing incident only moments after England had pulled the score back to 2-1.  Virtually straight from the kick-off, a move down the England right resulted in a Frank Lampard shot which struck the bar, bounced down and then back out of the German goal.  The picture below tells you all you need to know about the goal.


So clearly, England should have been level at 2-2.  The linesman however ruled that the ball had not crossed the line and the score remained 2-1.  In the second half, Germany were able to sit deep and counter-attack England, who had already been exposed defensively in the first half, and the result was a 4-1 win.

'Decision didn't affect outcome'

Let me first say that I don't believe the decision affected the eventual outcome of the match. Granted, it would certainly have changed the tempo of the match, and a 2-2 score-line at half-time would have made for a different strategy in the second half. 

However, Germany were deservedly 2-0 up, and it might have been three or four.  A 2-2 score-line would have flattered England massively - "papering over the cracks" is how John Barnes correctly described it. 

Germany's failure to score more was however their fault, England's was an official's decision.

Dealing with the fallout

In the aftermath, some of England's football pundits bemoaned the goal but acknowledged that they were outplayed by Germany.  Others have blamed the defeat on the decision - this is nothing new. 

Here in SA, the 'blame-game' is a national past-time because we feel that our teams are never beaten by better sides either - it's always someone else's fault.  Watching English news reactions to the game, it seems they are world-champions at this particular sport.  Some of the football pundits are even blaming Germany's goalkeeper for not giving them the goal, as if any keeper in the world would do this. 

This kind of stupid reporting does no-one any favours. Even Fabio Capello stupidly claimed that five officials missed it - in reality, it was one, and he erred.  As humans do...

Aside from the post-mortems, the relevant question in this affair is whether goal-line technology should be used.  And this is not a new issue, but it might help you to learn what FIFA's position is.

FIFA's position on science

In March this year, an organisation called the IFAB (International Football Association Board) met to discuss goal-line technology.  IFAB is made up of representatives from FIFA and the football associations of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. 

Presentations were heard from two companies - Hawkeye and Cairos Technologies.  Hawkeye does line calls for tennis and third-umpire decisions for cricket, while Cairos insert microchips into the ball to signal whether a goal is scored.

A vote was held, and the use of technology was defeated, 6-2. 

FIFA used their four votes to vote against it, with one vote each from Wales and Northern Ireland contributing to what FIFA announced after the meeting as the "end to the potential use of technology within football" (Jerome Valcke, FIFA's General Secretary).

Quite how this body, with such peculiar voting power, rules on this matter, is difficult to say. IFAB was formed in 1886, 18 years before FIFA, and consisted of the four British associations who had two votes each. FIFA joined in 1913, and received a block of four votes with the original associations of British football retaining one vote each.

FIFA has since grown to more than 200 national federations, but the body controlling the laws still comprises a 50% block from the original British associations, and four from FIFA. 

Quite how FIFA decides to make use of its four votes is another question mark, but as it stands, almost 200 member federations have no direct say in the rules of the game (ironically, England are one of the nations who voted "For" in the May vote) - they are represented rather narrowly, and it would be interesting to see how a vote put to all federations would go.

FIFA have also decided to introduce goal-line officials who will be stationed in and around the penalty area. They would certainly have ruled correctly today, but their introduction is symptomatic of FIFA's desire to 'go-human'.

So why the resistance to technology?

About two weeks ago, Sepp Blatter was quoted as saying that the introduction of technology into football would detract from the fervour of the sport. He said: "Then the science is coming in the game, no discussions, we don't want that. We want to have these emotions, and then a little bit more than emotions, passion"

Sepp and FIFA want human error, and so human error they get.

Blatter has also cited other reasons including:  the game's universality, fans who love debating incidents, the cost and fear of extended use of technology, and interference with the flow of the game. All of these are reasonable, but not insurmountable. 

Time is not an issue for goal-line decisions. The replay of Lampard's shot was shown within 20 seconds, much quicker than many celebrations take to complete.

Cost too, can be offset through sponsorship - in tennis, Rolex have taken the challenge system on as a sponsorship, and it has worked very effectively as a means to heighten tension there.  The same could happen for soccer (and let's be honest, FIFA would find a sponsor and commercialise this to within an inch of its life).

Emotion and passion: Is it beneficial if it's negative?

The remaining resistance then comes from FIFA's insistence that human error and debate drive passion and emotion. This is certainly supported by their attitude to the disgraceful play-acting and cheating where players are diving and getting other players sent off without any sanction after matches. 
The question I would ask in response to this, is whether correct decisions would really kill the emotion? 

Right now, all I'm seeing are complaints and excuses, and sadly, it detracts  from a brilliant game. If such negative emotions are what FIFA want, then fine, let's keep making mistakes.  But surely had the game gone 2-2, the second half would have been no less exciting.

England would have come out with positive intent, Germany would have resumed their approach, which up to that point had produced exciting, flowing football.  The result may have been 3-2, it may have been 4-2, it may have gone to extra-time and penalties.  But it most definitely would not have lacked emotion or passion. 

The only "passion" that has been added by today's controversy is anger, and that can't be good for the sport, surely?  Or is this football's equivalent of "There's no such thing as bad publicity?" As always, your opinions welcome.

To me, it's a no-brainer. Then again, I'm "science" and clearly, Sepp and FIFA don't care much for science. 

They'd rather keep technology and expertise out of the game, so that "everyone watching from their couches can be an expert too".  I wonder if Blatter realises that implicit in his argument is the admission that he is a "non-expert" himself.  What is the polar opposite of "expert"?  If you are an England fan, you can write to FIFA and let them know...

Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on



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