After the Latest Blunder, When Will Goal-Line Technology Be Used for Good in Soccer?

The debate over goal-line technology is the talk of the soccer world yet again.

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This past Saturday, defender Clint Hill made his 400th professional soccer appearance, as he suited up for his current club, Queens Park Rangers. The Hoops, English Premier League bottom-feeders, were taking on the equally inept Bolton Wanderers in a relegation battle commonly described as a “six-pointer” (a win is worth three points in English soccer, a tie one). Hill has never scored a goal in the top division. And after 20 minutes, he thought he finally broke through.

A corner kick from QPR captain Joey Barton bulleted off of Hill’s head, into the net, despite the desperate attempt made by Bolton’s goalkeeper Adam Bogdan to palm the ball away. As Hill and his teammates celebrated the pivotal first strike in the match (full disclosure: I was also cheering being a long-suffering QPR fan), there was only one slight hitch. Referee Martin Atkinson didn’t award the goal because one of his assistants, Bob Pollack, couldn’t confirm with the only technology currently available to him, his eyes, that the entire ball had crossed the line. Hill spent the rest of the first half seemingly shaking his head. Even worse, his side trailed 1-0 at the break.

The outrage wasn’t merely confined to QPR’s players, supporters and management, as the multitude of camera angles almost instantly proved that the goal should have been awarded. One TV pundit, the recently retired Gary Neville (an excellent defender with Manchester United and the England national team who knows how rare it is for a player from the back to score) lambasted Pollack, and called for the use of goal-line technology to settle all scoring arguments. In the second half, QPR struck back within minutes (ironically, another ref’s assistant failed to call offside on the equalizer). But in a game neither side could afford to lose or tie, both teams made attacking substitutions. Bolton’s strategy paid off. A late winner from Ivan Klasnic lifted Wanderers over the Rangers.

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As soon as the final whistle blew, all hell broke loose. QPR’s heavily-criticized manager, Mark Hughes – his team has won only once since he took over in the New Year – was waiting in the tunnel to argue with the officials. Even the opposing manager, Bolton’s Owen Coyle, had some sympathy. “I can absolutely understand Mark will be frustrated, as I was at the start of the second half when QPR scored an offside goal,” said Coyle. QPR’s captain, Barton, and co-owner, Amit Bhatia, turned to Twitter to voice their disgust.

Unless you’re a fan of incorrect calls, it’s hard to argue against goal-line tech. With so much at stake (both emotionally and financially), why leave anything to chance? Some fear replays would disrupt the flow of the game. But today’s wizardry can offer clear evidence within 30 seconds. If the replay is inconclusive, just revert to the ref’s on-field call.

Have other sports suffered from technological innovation? American football, cricket, rugby and baseball (in certain circumstances) are better off for it. In tennis, replays clearly pump fans up, as they await the verdict on the big screen. Copycat tennis or football if you’re worried about unnecessary disruptions: limit the amount of challenges per half or game.

We’ve been down this path in soccer before. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw England’s national team suffer a blatant injustice. Frank Lampard’s lob cleared the line by an enormous distance against Germany. But no goal, ruled the refs. That game would have (at the time of the goal) been tied 2-2; instead, Germany thrashed England, 4-1.

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You may also remember the EPL controversy from 1997. A clear Bolton goal was called off against Everton. What happened that season? Everton stayed in the top division, barely, while Wanderers got relegated.

After the QPR-Bolton controversy, The English Football Association pressed its reform case to international officials. A statement read:

Following last week’s meeting of IFAB (International Football Association Board) the FA would like to reiterate our strong desire to see Goal Line Technology introduced as soon as possible.

The FA has been a leading proponent of goal-line technology for many years. We will continue to press for its introduction once further independent testing is complete later this year, so that anyone wishing to introduce the technology is able to do so at the earliest possible opportunity.

This was scant consolation for QPR’s coach Hughes, who lamented that, “the laughable thing is the FA have come out and said they’re all for goal-line technology. I think that’s absolutely ludicrous that they come out and try to protect the poor performances of the officials they supply us. It’s a joke.” The FA’s call for a change has been echoed by soccer’s most powerful suit, FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

As for the Premier League, it will decide this July whether to implement goal-line technology (the IFAB has approved it in principle and are proceeding with final tests on two systems, one by British company HawkEye and the German-Danish GoalRef). It could even be ready for the start of the 2012/13 season in August.

By then, QPR may well be playing in a lower league, bemoaning that the system wasn’t already in place. For classy players like Hill, and the rest of us, that just isn’t good enough. It’s clearer than ever what the next goal in soccer needs to be.

PHOTOS: The 2010 World Cup