Will Soccer-Ball Tracking Ever Reach Its Goal?

Goal-line technologies advance but might not score an invitation to the 2014 World Cup

Photo: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images

This month, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is set to take yet another look at technology meant to eliminate the possibility of human error in the most fundamental aspect of a match—determining when a goal has been scored. Nine companies met the 1 June deadline to register for the tryout, but a federation spokesman would not reveal the names of the firms. The federation, the governing body for football (or soccer), says the winner will be announced sometime in 2012.

"If it's proved to be accurate and affordable, it's possible that the international board will adopt this technology during the 2014 World Cup," says FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Déjà vu, anyone? FIFA was expected to adopt goal-line technology after a round of tests in 2008. But it unexpectedly reversed course, with Blatter saying that he wanted football to "keep its human face." But FIFA officials had a change of heart after referees blew several calls at the 2010 World Cup. During a match between England and Germany, a goal was not counted despite TV replays that showed the ball crossing the goal line before bouncing back.

With the specter of the 2010 tournament in the background, FIFA has assigned the task of assessing goal-line systems to the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, in Zurich. FIFA expects the systems to recognize 100 percent of free shots on goal, and to transmit within 1 second a vibrated and visual indication of a scored goal to a special watch worn by the referee.

Only a few companies showcasing their wares during the preliminary round of testing in December will be invited back for a second, more stringent judging, between March and June 2012. The results of both assessment stages will be unveiled by next September.

Though FIFA is being tight-lipped about who is participating in the testing, the lineup reportedly includes several names that have been associated with FIFA's on-again, off-again courtship of goal-line technology since it began in earnest in 2005.

Among them is HawkEye Innovations, in Winchester, England, whose eponymous system uses a half dozen high-speed cameras to track the ball in flight. The system is best known as the brains behind line calls in grand slam tennis tournaments such as Wimbledon, where it has a margin of error of 3.6 millimeters (the company says the margin of error is the same for soccer). HawkEye's accuracy is enhanced by software that can find the ball even if only 25 percent of it is visible, and it predicts the trajectory even if several of the cameras' views are obscured, say the system's creators.

Another perennial candidate is a partnership between French transponder maker Chronelec and Swiss high-end watchmaker Tag Heuer. The group has created a ball with a transponder suspended at its center. When the ball crosses the plane of a goal that has been wired to emit a small magnetic field, the transponder radios encrypted data to a remote decoder. The group's decoder provides an update every 0.0001 second on whether the transponder has crossed the goal, a rate so high that the ball would have to be traveling 500 kilometers per hour to evade detection.

Also in the running is a German pair, Cairos Technologies and sporting goods and apparel maker Adidas. When the call for electronic goal-line technology began in 2005, the Cairos-Adidas group stepped forward with ambitious technology featuring small transponders inside the ball and on players' shin pads that would indicate goals and offsides. The system could deduce the ball's location by calculating how long it took signals from each of several receivers on the edges of the playing field to reach the transponder inside the ball and return. As a bonus, team coaches would also have access to data regarding each player's movements.

But in 2008, the German firms began hawking a system similar to the one presented by Tag Heuer–Chronelec. The difference between the two systems is where the wires lie. Instead of wiring the frame of the goal and the ground beneath the goal line, the Cairos-Adidas group uses a series of thin cables installed underneath the penalty area (the rectangle in front of the goal) and behind the goal line to generate two distinct magnetic fields.

The companies are reluctant to talk about their technologies or to discuss FIFA's ever-changing stance on goal-line technology, for fear of offending the governing body and torpedoing their chances. "There are many stories I could tell you, but I'm not sure what I'm able to say," says one company spokesman. So it's hard to predict whether electronic goal-line technology will make it onto the playing field in time to help World Cup referees in 2014.

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