Technology at World Cup Helps Eliminate Refs Errors

Robert Roble Editor, SportsTechie

The history books might look a lot different for soccer fans if innovations like Ref Cam and goal-line technology (GLT) had been available at the World Cup in 2010.

Four years ago, England lost to Germany in the knockout stage after an obvious game-tying, momentum-changing goal was not allowed because of human error. A similar thing happened in 1966 when England won over West Germany in the final, 4-2, after a controversial third goal. Which is why this summer, after four long years of trial and error, a product called GoalControl is being used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — and it could forever change the sport and create soccer history in the process.

GLT was approved into the rules of soccer in June 2012 and is currently being used by match officials for the very first time. FIFA will use GoalControl, a specialist in real-time image analysis for live sporting events, as the official GLT provider for the tournament. The company has experience in designing and deploying camera-based vision systems that wirelessly detect, identify, and track moving objects in complicated scenarios — which is exactly what’s called for on the field during World Cup games.

Sports Instant Replay

Dr. Andy Harland is director of the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in England. He oversees the research, education, business engagement, operations, and strategic vision for the UK’s leading academic sports technology center. I asked him for his perspective on how GoalControl will affect the World Cup in Brazil, and if human error is acceptable in sports when advanced systems such as Hawk-Eye or MLB instant replay now routinely assist refs with calls in tennis, cricket and baseball.

“Players and spectators have always known that error exists within decision taken on the sports field,” Dr. Harland said. “Pressure to reduce this error has led to technological systems being developed. Anyone experienced with engineering or technology will recognize that any measurement system cannot be perfect and errors will still be made, but hopefully not errors that will be noticed by the players or spectators. But the danger is that players and spectators now expect perfection.

“’Seeing is believing’ remains at the heart of most analysis of sports decision making, so the court of public opinion will still rely heavily on TV replays of any contentious decision. Ideally, all GoalControl decisions will be shown to be consistent with TV footage to build public confidence in the system. GoalControl appearing to differ from TV replays would be an interesting test of whether the public is confident of the testing required within the FIFA licensing program and accept the decision, or choose to rely on what they have seen on TV. The attitude of media and commentators will no doubt have an important influence. After a largely successful season of Hawk-Eye in the English Premier League (EPL), with only one or two close calls, I would suggest that most players and supporters have faith in the system.

“FIFA have been careful not to disrupt the mechanics of the game — the referee will still indicate a goal in the conventional manner, meaning there will be no obvious immediate difference for players or spectators. Until we see a close line call in the World Cup, we will not know how GoalControl will affect the games. If it functions correctly, a goal will be awarded in the usual manner and hopefully the TV replay will confirm the decision.

“In many respects, it is a technological innovation for which success will be judged by how little we notice it!”

Review Options

There are two ways instant replay is currently used in professional sports. One is the use of centralized reviews, like the NHL and now MLB have in place, in which officials at each league’s respective headquarters review all replays. The other way is to look “under the hood” on the field and court, as is currently done in the NFL and NBA.

Excuses that were once valid and used over-and-over by sport executives, like referring to the technology as not mature enough and too expensive to implement, are yesterday’s excuses. With the drop in cost of computer processing power and the increase in rendering speeds, instant replay has never been more fine-tuned and cost-effective in the history of sports.

The age of using cutting-edge products and systems to either make initial correct calls or correct wrong calls by refs in pro leagues, college sports and even high school athletics is defiantly here.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter spoke at FIFA’s annual congress in Sao Paulo and, according to ESPN, he suggested a new rule that would allow managers to challenge referee decisions twice during games. Blatter has not been a big fan of GLT and other technological advancements that can interfere with game flow and traditions, but his position changed, allowing for discussions about implementing a system similar to those used in American football, baseball, and tennis.

“We could do something more on the field of play,” said Blatter, according to ESPN. “Why don’t we give team managers the possibility of two challenges for refereeing during the match? If the manager disagrees with a decision, why should he not ask for an immediate TV review with the referee?”

The answer is clear to me: Have all questionable calls reviewed. When the game is a 1-0 score, the stakes are too high in World Cup games to only offer two challenges per coach. Correcting bad or missed calls through the use of instant replay and other tech is a no-brainer. Whatever happens, any change to football’s rules needs the approval of the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and takes a minimum of 18 months to pass.

How else can technology assist officials? In soccer, that list is long: added injury time and offsides, handballs and penalty kicks, and whether fouls actually occur inside the box and should result in a free penalty kick. Instant replay tech is now used by FIFA for player and fan-based racial incidents and match fixing reviews. Unsportsmanlike conduct reviews in real-time are another obvious need. Penalizing a team after the game is over is not good enough.


GoalControl is the system manufacturer of GoalControl-4D that uses 14 high-speed cameras around the stadium including seven that zero in on the goal.

Following the successful implementation of GLT at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013, GoalControl became the official GLT provider for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. The New Tivoli stadium in Aachen, Germany is now equipped with the “FIFA Quality Pro” seal of approval awarded to stadia fitted with the FIFA World Cup goal-line technology system GoalControl-4D.

During the first week of World Cup 2014, in the match between France and Honduras, the Guardian reports how the GLT worked fine during a play while the video replay caused some confusion between commentators and coaches.

“In order to ensure maximum clarity in the future of those unfamiliar with GLT, FIFA will review the coverage of this match with the broadcast production team and GoalControl GmbH, to see if any improvements can be made to enhance the reviewing experience for fan’s,” FIFA replied in a statement reported by the Guardian.


Another complex officiating tool is the Hawk-Eye ball tracking system. The accuracy, reliability, and user-friendliness, after more than a decade of broadcast and officiating use, has made Hawk-Eye an integral player in rule interpretation and sports strategy.

Hawk-Eye was initially part of cricket broadcasting and has leveraged this to become more than a broadcast tool. It is a robust system that improves the quality of officials decision-making while entertaining fans in attendance and those watching along on TV, and is now part of other sports such as tennis, snooker, and Gaelic hurling.

The UK-based company powers hundreds of events, including Wimbledon, the Cricket World Cup, the Davis and Federation Cups, the World Snooker Championships, and Indian Premier League cricket.

Human Interpretation

Even with innovations like these helping refs make the right calls, these systems still rely on human interpretation. During the 2012 referee lockout, for example, the NFL used replacement officials for a crucial Monday night game. The Seattle Seahawks scored a Hail Mary touchdown to defeat the Green Bay Packers, but it was not without controversy. The replay officials were not replacement refs, and their expert human interpretation of the play was that there was not enough “indisputable evidence” to overturn the call. Many fans and players felt the “real” NFL booth officials blew the call, costing the Packers a key win and affecting both fantasy football owners and sports bettors to the tune of $150 million.

Ultimately, at the World Cup the only humans able to see GoalControl data and outcome will be the on-field officials wearing a watch. Coaches, broadcasters, and fans will not have access to the results. How much of a human error is that during the world’s biggest sporting event? That depends on whom you ask, and what team they love.

Images courtesy of GoalControl

Robert Roble founded Sports Techie, a sports technology community, blog and expert resource in 2010 after a once-in-a-lifetime role as Wetpaint’s Moderator. He moderated the New York Giants, Houston Rockets and HBO Entourage historical wiki and online communities, in addition to writing blogs for DWTS and MSN. Bob is a pioneer in sports tech, an untapped market valued at $200 billion. His career in sports and tech spans four decades, where he’s worked for Paul Allen and the Seattle Seahawks, Magic, and Dartfish. The Sports Techie social media network is global and passionate about green, robots and animals. Engage with his blog, friend @SportsTechieNET on Twitter and Like the Facebook fan page; also follow on Google+,YouTube and LinkedIn. He is happy for the opportunity to focus his iQ by Intel eye on innovative sports technology related content, trends and products that involve Intel’s tech, people and happy customers.


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