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Goal-line technology may slowly take over as a vital support system for football

The organisation at the heart of international soccer’s technological advancement is located in a generic two-story building just off the A4 highway here, a few steps up the street from a kitchen-design firm and a quick turn around the corner from a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

sports Updated: Apr 21, 2013 02:39 IST

The organisation at the heart of international soccer’s technological advancement is located in a generic two-story building just off the A4 highway here, a few steps up the street from a kitchen-design firm and a quick turn around the corner from a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There is no large sign trumpeting the offices of the organization, GoalControl, and one could easily walk past without noticing the tiny sticker on its front door; in some ways, the modest setting is appropriate for a company that did not officially exist until late last year.

But the expectations for GoalControl are significant: the success of its cameras-and-software system, which will be used to judge goal-line decisions at this summer’s Confederations Cup in Brazil — and, ostensibly, next year’s World Cup, too — is crucial in helping soccer catch up to other sports in its use of technology.

That is why executives at GoalControl see this as only the beginning. The system they have created to provide clarity in goal-line scoring situations could also potentially be used, they say, to assist in ridding soccer of its other most-prevalent flash point: the incorrect judging of soccer’s complex offside rule, which so often either denies a team a scoring opportunity or unfairly leads to a tainted goal.

Imagine the all-too-familiar scene: a long pass is played from the midfield, and an attacker races to it while defenders throw up their hands claiming offside. Instead of relying on the eyes of an assistant referee, though, as he sprints down the sideline and tries to determine where the attacker was at the moment the ball was played, the referee could count on a computer to read images provided by the cameras. It could determine the attacker’s location and send a signal to the referee’s watch within a second. A picture of the play could then be shown on video screens in the stadium, as well as to viewers on TV.

“Technically, yes, offside is absolutely possible — it would just take a few more cameras in the stadium,” Dirk Broichhausen, GoalControl’s managing director, said in a recent interview at the company’s offices. “This is the direction the sport is going. We are hoping to be at the start of something here.”

Björn Lindner, the chairman of the board for the company, added from across the table: “We could even track the players’ hands and arms, for a handball.”

Ambitious as they are, however, the executives behind GoalControl are also realistic about progress in a sport that has been notoriously slow to embrace changes. First, they must see their product succeed in eliminating the maddening is-it-or-isn’t-it debates that arise with split-second goal-line decisions.

After all, as recently as three years ago, Sepp Blatter, the head of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, said he was vehemently opposed to instituting any sort of technological advances to aid in officiating the game. It was only after a glaring mistake at the 2010 World Cup, when England’s Frank Lampard was denied an obvious goal after the on-field officials failed to see that his shot had gone over the goal line, that Blatter reversed course.

That led to a lengthy process that culminated in 18 companies’ submitting bids to be recognized as certified providers of G.L.T., or goal-line technology, each with a different take on how to solve the problem of a game that sometimes — often, even — involves more precision than humans can accurately judge.

Potential solutions were varied: some companies advocated embedding computer chips in the ball or putting stickers on it, while others promoted the use of so-called light curtains in the goal or laser beams on the line.

Ultimately, FIFA narrowed the field to four companies and then, on April 2, selected GoalControl to provide G.L.T. at the Confederations Cup in June. GoalControl’s system involves 14 cameras — seven trained on each goal — that look similar to the security cameras one might see in an A.T.M. vestibule. In Brazil, the cameras will be attached to the catwalks beneath each stadium’s lights and will constantly take full-frame, full-color pictures — 500 per minute — to determine the ball’s location.

Computers will continually scan the images, and when the ball is seen to have crossed the goal line, a signal will be sent to the referee’s watch causing it to vibrate and alert him that a goal should be awarded.

That aspect, of course, is the major difference in the way soccer and other major professional sports use technology: there is no replay component in soccer’s plan. In contrast to football, baseball, basketball and hockey, there will be no one going under a hood or to a nearby television monitor to “take another look” at a call already made. In this case, the technology will make the call, essentially in real time, eliminating both long stoppages in game action as well as the possibility that two people might interpret the data — a replay — differently.

“There are many things sacred about soccer, and our goal was to develop a system that does not affect anything that is related to how the game is played,” said Lindner, the company board chairman. “We didn’t want to make people use a certain ball or a certain type of goal or have to dig up fields to put down wires.”

First Published: Apr 21, 2013 02:38 IST