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The Great Goal-Line Technology Scam

FIFA's decision to use goal-line technology is yet another indication of their fundamental mismanagement of the game.

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... and there was much rejoicing. FIFA have finally agreed to allow for the use of goal-line technology (GLT) after a series of high-profile incidents in major domestic and international tournaments. The GLT debate had been one-sidedly raging for years following the Frank Lampard non-goal against Germany at the 2010 World Cup, and now, after some half-hearted protesting, it's over -- a Hawkeye-esque system will be used at the Club World Cup this year and is expected to be adopted by the top European leagues between now and the 2014 World Cup.

This is a major public relations victory for FIFA. People have been clamoring for goal-line technology, and although the suits initially resisted, they've seen reason and light and finally caved on the issue. Never again will the scourge of an incorrectly-given goal haunt our great lands. Except for those goals incorrectly given on blown offside calls. Or dives in the box that fooled the referee. Or on slightly illegal long throw throw-ins (I'm looking at you, Rory). Football has decided to take a stand and solve a problem that is, at best, tertiary, and they're receiving praise for it.

Anyone who follows the sport is fully aware that there are two major problems facing officials today. The first is getting foul calls correct, which is by no means easy. There are fouls, there are dives, there are embellishments of fouls* and there are players who just fall down on their own without meaning to. Trying to determine which is which can be difficult enough on the slow motion replays the modern football watcher is blessed with; doing it in real time is a herculean feat.

*Incidentally, it'd be lovely if someday, some referee had the stones to award a penalty for a foul and book the fouled player for exaggerating said foul.

And then there are offside decisions. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I expect the referee's assistants to get, on average, more than one call wrong a game. It's not that understanding the offside rule is hard -- there's some confusion, but you can probably be fairly confident that professional linesmen have the particulars down -- it's that it's fundamentally impossible to focus on two things at once and be perfectly accurate about both, and that's what they're asked to do in tracking both the ball and defensive line simultaneously.

In the Premier League, it's not unreasonable to claim that we're looking at dozens of goals a year called incorrectly (one way or another) thanks to blown foul or offside decisions. Whether you like that randomness is up to you -- some might say that they increase the variability of an individual match and thus the overall competitiveness of the league -- but it's pretty clear that the referees are getting things wrong fairly frequently, and that has a major impact on the games and final table.

Dubious goal-line calls, however, are far more rare. We had that Lampard effort during the most recent incarnation of Sepp Blatter's moneymaking machine, and, more recently, a pair of contentious Chelsea goals against Tottenham Hotspur, some blown calls during AC Milan games, and, most recently, a goal-line clearance by John Terry during England-Ukraine at Euro 2012 that wasn't*. But despite some high profile incidents, we're looking at something that occurs in something like one percent of games.

*Amusingly, if goal-line technology had given Ukraine a goal there, it would have been in error -- the move started when the linesman missed an offside, meaning that the failure to spot the ball crossing the line ended up making up for the first mistake.

Essentially, we're looking at two major problems. Yet FIFA have chosen to focus on an entirely different, comparatively insignificant one. Of course, getting more calls correct is a good thing, and if we can't get the big things done, doing the small things instead isn't really a cause for complaint. The fact that someone fixed a pothole outside my apartment while poverty rages unchecked elsewhere isn't something that I find overly bothersome. Should we see goal-line technology in this sort of light?

It's tempting to, but the analogy fails when you look at the sheer amount of money that's going into fixing this problem. Solving world poverty would take rather a lot of time and money; filling in a pothole takes virtually none. The pothole FIFA have opted to fill will cost millions upon millions of dollars, according to ESPN, who claim that implementing the camera systems required to make goal-line technology work "likely will cost up to $250,000 per stadium."

So that's £3.2M for the Premier League (or whoever is going to implement this) next season. A pittance by footballing standards, obviously, especially with a new television deal signed, but when you consider what the average top-flight referee makes - £33k a year plus match fees of around that much again - it looks like an enormous heap of money. Would that not be better spent raising refereeing standards, so we have better linesmen and more (and better trained) eyes on the pitch? Outfitting each of the league's twenty stadia with goal-line technology is the equivalent of paying a year's wages for more than two and a half Premier League referees. That's absurd.

And if you really want a technological solution to what ails football, why not focus on offside? It's certainly not as tractable a problem as using a camera to watch the goal line (I'm curious as to what happens when the top-down view is obscured, incidentally), but it's hardly impossible. If the issue is that it's difficult to watch both the ball and the line at the same time, add a microchip to the ball that talks to the linesmens' headsets whenever it's struck. It's not an ideal solution, probably because I thought of it while writing this paragraph, but it has the benefit of being cheap, invisible and actually helpful.

I can completely sympathize with those who want the game to be more fairly officiated. But in endorsing goal-line technology, FIFA have fallen into the trap of doing what the media wants rather than what's actually good for the sport. We've been conditioned to think that goal-line controversies are a scourge of the sport and told to buy-in on the sexy solution while actual, legitimate problems continue unchecked.

The decision to use goal-line technology is, probably, a step forward. But if it makes football better, it does so by fractions of a percent, and for a frankly ludicrous cost. It's terrible resource management brought on by a misguided crusade to solve a problem that should have waited for later. When it comes to doing good, the best thing FIFA did on Thursday was allowing headscarves. And it's not even particularly close.