At this year's FIFA World Cup, referees' wristwatches don't just tell time. They also buzz when a goal is scored.
When Argentina's Lionel Messi drills a shot at Germany's goal during the final match of the tournament on Sunday, seven high-speed cameras pointed at the net will record the ball's movement, millisecond by millisecond. Refs on the field will receive a notification transmitted to their smartwatches within a second after the shot that reads either "goal" or "no goal."
This has been the first World Cup where technology is helping to decide goals. Previously, officiators had only their eyes to rely on, and that inevitably led to human error. During the last World Cup in South Africa, England took a shot against Germany that hit the crossbar, landed inside the goal and jumped back out. The call was obvious from the replay, but the refs on the field missed it. England wasn’t awarded the score, which would have tied it up, and the Brits were knocked out of the tournament.
Sports fans love to accuse refs of being blind, but the automated camera system isn't without its skeptics. Honduran fans protested a goal awarded to France's Karim Benzema during a game in the group stage of the current World Cup. The goalie pulled the ball back into the field of play, but the technology determined it had already crossed the goal line — and generated an animated reenactment to prove it, which was shown on TV following the replay. Still, the technical wizardry didn’t convince many Honduran fans.
In a statement, FIFA said the system did its job in that case but that soccer’s governing body will review coverage of the match "to see if any improvements can be made to enhance the viewing experience for fans.” In other words, get used to it. Players will still be able to flop and bite their way to an advantage on the field, but goals are now decided with the precision of an algorithm.
FIFA has approved four types of goal-line technology for use in games. Two of them use involve cameras, and the other two rely on chips embedded in the ball combined with magnetic-field sensors in each goal capable of detecting when it crosses the line. A FIFA spokeswoman said the organization installed a German-engineered magnetic system called GoalRef for the 2012 Club World Cup, an annual 10-day tournament.
Soccer’s rule makers decided not to use chipped balls for the sport’s most important global event. Any major changes to the ball can cause players, coaches and fans to kick up dust. FIFA had intended to use a “smart ball” in the 2006 World Cup, an unpopular plan that was abandoned months before kick-off in Germany. Even minor changes that don’t involve technology can backfire. The 2010 Adidas ball used in South Africa was ridiculed by players for its unpredictable bounces. (Americans loved it thanks to a wacky hop that may have helped Clint Dempsey score on England.)
FIFA left the ball alone this year in favor of the camera setup. There’s still potential for controversy in the final, but it probably won’t have to do with the technology itself. The camera system is supplied by GoalControl, a company based in Würselen, Germany. If there’s a close call against Argentina, expect fans to blame the machines’ patriotism.