A Soccer Hooligan’s Plea

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1622-uefa-euro-2012.jpgI am a huge soccer fan. It’s probably because I spent the first ten years of my life in Lisbon, Portugal, and dribbling past defenders was always my favorite pastime. It helped me pay for college, and I still get an adrenaline rush whenever I watch or play a game. Now, I’ve heard all the criticism – that it’s not manly like football, not enough goals get scored to keep it interesting like in basketball, it’s not as all-American as baseball, and that half the players fake their injuries like whiny preschoolers. I’ll grant you that last one. But at the same time I love the idea of the best eleven players from each country or club meeting on the pitch, abiding by certain rules (for the most part), and competing in a physically demanding activity that requires a high degree of nuanced skill – all while ordinarily leaving their country’s politics and economics off the field.
 
That being said, there’s one thing that really bothers me about soccer: the stubborn lack of technology. I’m not suggesting that we revolutionize the sport by inserting microchips in the players to get real-time vitals or even POV cameras on the players’ heads. No, in fact it would be a little sad to see the time-honored tradition get the ultra-information treatment of NASCAR or the uber stats of baseball. But soccer is, unfortunately, the last bastion of old world gentleman-sport elitism, refusing to equip its fields with a foolproof and unbiased method for detecting when a ball is out of bounds, a player is offside, or – dare I say it – an actual GOAL is scored.

As we Americans remember quite vividly from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, we scored a goal against Slovenia that wasn’t spotted by the linesman or referee, which ended in a 2-2 draw. We were flat-out robbed. I wish it were a fluke, but game-altering errors are made constantly, as evidenced just last week in the 2012 Euro Cup when Ukraine scored what would have been an equalizer against England, which was clearly visible to anyone watching the super slow-motion replay. The goal did not count in spite of an added linesman on the goal line (as a result of the myriad requests for better technology), and the demoralized host nation left the field beaten and dejected. Of course, to muddy the waters a little bit, England fans like to mention that the player who received the ball right before the controversial no-goal was in fact offside without that being called.
 
All of this begs the question: If the players, coaches, fans, referees, commentators, and countries all want a change, why is nothing being done? I understand that removing the human element from the game can be a slippery slope, and yet the even more traditionalist, gentlemanly sport of tennis allows the players to challenge the judge’s call a limited number of times, consulting a monitor with sensors all over the court for an extra dose of accuracy. So if the technology is there, and we can minimize human error – even on a limited basis – what is stopping us?
 
WIRED Magazine ran a recent article about the great innovator and Silicon Valley Nostradamus, Marc Andreessen. In the interview he makes reference to the “technological imperative,” saying, “Technology is like water; it wants to find its level” (Issue 20.05, May 2012). It’s as if technology itself wants to improve processes and systems, and there’s only so much that we can do to hold back the floodgates of the benefits we could reap from it. And yet, often times we insist on holding it back.
 
  This idea of a technological imperative can easily be applied to and seen in action when it comes to IT support. With great technological tools available today, support professionals can automate and streamline many basic tasks, helping save time and locate problems quickly and even, yes, eliminate some human error.  Smarter automation seems like an imperative to survival in this age, allowing less people to do more…and do it better. I mean, why wouldn’t you take advantage of these tools? I guess you could ask the same question of the soccer associations. Why wouldn’t any industry take advantage of what seems like an obvious win-win?
 
Well, the soccer rulers-that-be have one thing right. You can’t eliminate the human element in pretty much any realm.  I think we can all agree on that. There always needs to be a human “ref” when it comes to using any technology, whether it’s remote support or sports technology.  But is the holding-out of soccer associations just a stubborn refusal to use technology to be more fair, to have a clearer perspective – to do something better?  I, personally, hope they figure it out.
 
Until then, I’ll continue to mourn the loss of Portugal from this Euro Cup. But I’ll definitely be sitting back and enjoying what promises to be a great game on Sunday, and hope that the officials are wearing their contacts. Or, if it’s my favorite team that’s getting scored on, hopefully not.