- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Human beings: clever enough to land Neil Armstrong on the moon but seemingly not yet capable of inventing a foolproof method for telling when a soccer ball crosses a goal line.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

With each additional weekend of avoidable human errors from overtaxed referees, the excuse that goal-line technology isn’t quite ready for the big-time grows only that much harder to swallow.

The latest referee made to look foolish was Babak Rafati at Sunday’s Bundesliga game between Mainz and Hamburger SV. Marcell Jansen’s crossbar-rattling volley did not cross Mainz’s line, but Rafati still awarded a Hamburg goal. Afterward, the opposing managers appealed for electronic goal-line monitoring.

“There is no longer a coach who isn’t for it,” Hamburg coach Armin Veh said. “We’ve already been asking for it for so long, but nothing happens.”

Which is why the advent of machines in soccer is inevitable. Human errors become unacceptable and unjustifiable once electronic aids exist that can avoid mistakes without ruining the flow of a game or stripping the sport of its human soul. Sports administrators opposed to machines will, like dinosaurs, die out, because their resistance will be seen as nothing more than nonsensical pigheadedness. So it was with tennis and cricket, and will be with soccer. Electronic aids will be used to better referee matches. The only question is when not if.

But the suits at FIFA, perhaps wisely, are refusing to rush this transition. They must get this great leap forward absolutely right because technology cannot be uninvented once it has been introduced.

Proof of that comes from cycling.

That sport needs more bad publicity like a hole in the head. It should be focusing its energies on convincing skeptics that not all riders dope and that those who do have a better than reasonable chance of being caught.

Yet instead _ diversionary tactic, perhaps? _ cycling’s governing body has triggered an ugly and needless fight about technology, specifically the radios that riders and their managers have used since the 1990s to talk to each other during races. Stuff like, “I have a puncture,” “Don’t let competitor X, Y or Z get too far ahead” and “Beware! Slippery, sun-melted tarmac on the bend ahead!”

The UCI believes that its creeping ban on radios will make races more exciting because riders will be forced to think more for themselves, may take more risks and won’t get as much help from managers feeding them tips and tactics.

Maybe. But it seems a bit late to argue that now. To expect a generation of riders who grew up with radios to do without is like asking fencers to give up the padded vests and masks that stop them from being skewered in combat. Maybe the spectacle would be more gripping but, still, you’d be mad to make them do without.

When a rider has an accident that he could have been forewarned about with a radio, then the UCI will lose this battle because it won’t be able to argue convincingly with the majority who will say, “I told you so.”

In the words of German rider Jens Voigt, who has ridden in every Tour de France since 1998, “If I had a fatal crash, who of you who think the radio ban is a great idea will go to Berlin and explain to my six children that it was the right decision and daddy was just an unlucky victim in the so-important battle for more drama in cycling?”

In other words, once introduced, it can be impossible to uninvent a technology and still remain credible. Swimming’s decision to ban super-fast suits was an obvious exception. The suits denatured the sport and had to go. Still, even that example shows that a sport should weigh all the pros and cons of a major technological advance _ which swimming didn’t _ before adopting it.

For a week in February, FIFA put goal-line technologies from 10 companies through their paces, in day and night tests at its headquarters in Switzerland. FIFA says none of them was as quick, as accurate or as simple as it wants. The Hawk-Eye system used for disputed tennis line calls was not tested in the latest studies. So this weekend, soccer’s rule-making body extended the tests for another year. That’s either good due diligence or a plodding excess of caution. It is hard to know which because FIFA has not been particularly open about the testing.

“What is one year? It is nothing. Just a little bit of patience is needed,” said FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

The need is urgent. It was even before Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal marred Germany-England at the 2010 World Cup. The excuse that the technology isn’t quite up to scratch grows ever more threadbare. Accurately determining a goal isn’t rocket science. Isn’t there an app for that?

Not yet, seemingly, although there must for the 2014 World Cup at the latest. However, having procrastinated for so long, soccer can perhaps wait 12 more months to ensure that the chosen machine is better than referees. Otherwise, there’s not much point.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org

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