The World Cup is well underway, and the media is awash with articles, not about tactics or strategies, but about the technology that is infiltrating play.
There’s no denying that this world cup is shaping up to be a rather controversial one thanks to the introduction of video assistant referees (VARs). While some may agree it’s helping to clean up the game, others argue it’s taking away the very soul of football and undermining refereeing abilities. However, there’s no disputing that it is fundamentally changing the game. We’ve already seen it decide some of the most important refereeing decisions on the pitch as well as helping to determine the future of the tournament.
Introducing VARs to the game took a long time and that was partly because many feared it could ruin the flow and feel of the game. Critics suggested that referees flagging up decisions using VAR – and then taking time to review footage and make their decision – could cause disruptions in play. They also argued it would take away the important nuance that is part of refereeing.
When it was eventually launched, VARs was described as an ‘additional supportive tool for referees’ by FIFA and we were told the technology had been designed to create ‘minimum interference with maximum benefit’ – well, considering pundits have been talking about issuing a yellow card for players that repeatedly request the use of VARs to replay tackles, I think it’s fair to say its actually causing maximum interference.
While VARs technology has been dominating the press, it isn’t the only new technology being used in this World Cup, so let’s take a look at how other forms of technology are changing the game:
Electronic Performance & Tracking Systems
Described by FIFA as a ‘hidden’ technology, Electronic Performance and Tracking Systems consist of a number of tools and communication equipment for both teams. Technical and medical staff of the participating teams have dedicated workstations on the media tribune and a dedicated line to communicate with the coaching and medical staff on the bench. Positional data from two optical tracking cameras located on the main tribune that track the players and ball are available to the analysts in real time, alongside live footage from selected tactical cameras. The insights from the technical information and the provided communication link allow for constant real-time interaction that can feed into their decisions during the match.
For the last 8 years we’ve tried to forget the devastating moment England were knocked out of the World Cup by Germany when Frank Lampard’s goal was disallowed for not crossing the line – despite the fact replays were broadcast around the world to an audience of millions, showing footage of the ball clearly crossing the line. In that moment we furiously slated the lack of technology in football and our point was valid seeing as we had the technology to send man to the moon back in 1969, yet in 2010 we still didn’t have the technology to see if a ball crossed a line – ridiculous right? Well, our wish was finally granted in 2014.
Goal-line technology was actually used for the first time in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. France’s Karim Benzema was the first player at a World Cup to benefit from goal-line technology for the award of a goal when his header against Honduras crossed the goal line only for a few milliseconds.
The referees at this World Cup are continuing to rely on this tool during the tournament in Russia. All competition stadiums have been equipped with goal-line technology that processes information from 14 high-speed cameras and sends a signal within one second to the referee’s watch indicating when the ball has crossed the goal line.
The recent introduction of these forms of technology seem to be having a big impact on matches. But is it damaging to the traditional characteristics of the game – the skills and strategy that have grown to make the sport one of the best loved games in the world?
Ultimately, both human interpretation and error is a part of football and introducing technology won’t necessarily change that which brings us to question the way in which the technology should be used.
We’ve already seen referees refer to VARs and award penalties that the commentators and other spectators believe shouldn’t have been awarded and vice versa and we’ve seen referees refusing to refer to VAR in cases which had they reviewed it, would likely have resulted in a very different outcome (yes, I’m referring to the mauling of Harry Kane during the Tunisia game).
It’s still early days and a lot will be learnt from this World Cup. No doubt we’ll see even more technology embedding itself into the 2022 World Cup but hopefully FIFA will use this time to establish more concrete rules around the use of the technology.
Whether you’re for or against technology in this age-old sport, whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the most exciting world cups for a long time!