Soccer update: Both Hawkeye and GoalRef systems approved, and where this could lead

The Daily Mail reports that the International FA Board, governing soccer in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland in conjunction with FIFA, has approved both competing “goal-line” technologies – Hawkeye (a camera-based system already in use in Cricket and Tennis) and GoalRef (an electro-magnetic system relying on several magnetic strips placed in the ball); while neither is likely to be used in the Premier League this coming season, they might be used as early as December’s Club World Cup.

Separately, Adidas has an initiative with Major League Soccer called “miCoach” or “Smart Soccer”, which tracks not only the ball but also the cleats of the players.

Combining all this, it should be possible to use these automated systems to determine several things (in addition to stats like “how far did this player run during the game”):

  • Any time a goal is scored (the intended use for goal-line technology)
  • Any time the ball goes out of play over the endline or sideline (for a goal kick, corner kick, or throw-in). This is one of the main reasons to have assistant refs patrol the sidelines, and if extended to this use, would partly make their positioning obsolete.
  • Relative positioning of players from both teams and position of the ball, which would allow calculating when a player might be in an offside position. It could be made “smart” by only sounding an alarm if a player was offside when the ball was struck by a player from the same team and that, without first contacting another player, the ball subsequently comes within some close distance of that player. This is another major responsibility of assistant refs. The technology could likely perform this task more accurately and consistently than the assistant refs. (Among other things, the assistant refs often rely on the sound of the ball being kicked to determine the time the player might be offside, but that sound is delayed by the time it reaches them. They may also not be exactly in line with the offside player, and any angle could affect the call.)

So… if technology could now potentially take responsibility for all out-of-bounds calls (including goals, goal kicks, corner kicks, and throw-ins), as well as determining offside position:

  • The assistant refs wouldn’t need to stick strictly to the sidelines. They could be each assigned a half of the field to patrol, and be allowed to wander on the field as they see fit. This could allow them to stay closer to the action and also triangulate better around the players and ball, without requiring extra referees. It would also make it easier for them to confer with the referee and players in person.
  • All the referees would be able to pay less attention to whether the ball has crossed the line or a player is potentially in an offside position, and more attention to who last touched the ball as well as fouls and other illegal behavior – that is, all the things the technology can’t really do.

So the question is: has Adidas, Hawkeye, GoalRef, or anyone else experimented with this extended use? Are there any technical hurdles to using the technology for all these purposes?

So here would be my suggested refereeing configuration:

  • Technical system to track when the ball passes out of bounds (including for a goal), notifying the referees (but not the spectators) when it does, as well as track when any player is in an offside position
  • Main on-field referee who is in absolute charge of all calls (as currently)
  • Two assistant referees, each of whom is allowed to roam anywhere in their assigned half of the field (as opposed to being limited to staying on the sideline, as currently). The trade-off is more chance of a referee interfering with play, but I think it would be a worthwhile trade-off.
  • Fourth official to manage sideline/coaches/substitutions (as currently)
  • Fifth “TV” official up in the broadcast booth, to notify on-field referees of incidents plainly visible on TV or help confirm what happened. This official could also possibly help keep track of information such as how many fouls have been called against each player.

While such steps can never fully eradicate “bad calls”, I think they could go a long way toward reducing some of the worst problems currently encountered in officiating a soccer game.

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