The Beautiful, Invisible Game

And how technology can help or hurt our ability to understand the sport
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The first goal of the 2014 World Cup was Brazilian, and it was an own goal. All the television replays showed how unlucky the eccentric Brazilian defender Marcelo was, how the Croatian cross swirled around the Brazilian box just enough so any contact would have meant a goal, and how Marcelo’s touch, while unfortunate, was probably unavoidable. But unlike previous World Cups, this year spectators could see footage of that first goal over and over again, thanks to the championship’s new goal-line technology.

It’s one of the key technical innovations of this year’s tournament. Inspired by the Hawk-Eye officiating technology used in professional tennis, seven cameras eye the pitch at World Cup matches. Referees can now consult a computer-rendered image of the ball and the goal in order to verify that the ball trespassed the goal line. Spectators can also partake of these crude computer renders, maniacally reliving cases like Marcelo’s own goal in celebration or lamentation.

One of association football’s regulatory quirks is that the ball has to completely surpass the goal line to count as a goal. This rule produces the phenomenon of “ghost goals:” situations in which the result of a ball played into the goal is uncertain. A ghost goal might mean one awarded without the ball really having crossed the line, or it might refer to a goal disallowed even when it did fully cross. For some reason the most famous ones seem to involve England: the 1966 title was decided by a ghost goal, and in the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup, England was denied a ghost goal by Lampard that would have meant the 2-2 equalizer against Germany (England eventually lost the match 4-1).

Despite their infrequence, ghost goals epitomize football’s active resistance to  technology, in favor of human interpretation. Football has avoided technology because the game is designed around an interpretive referee, who must know the rules but also interpret them during play in a constantly changing situation. There is space for ambiguity and failure in football, a game in which the referee is just another player with a different role. The new goal-line technology is supposed to change this, bringing the game into the 21st century. Technology is meant to act as an aid without interrupting the flow of a game known for flow, while also avoiding controversies in tournaments with massive costs and enormous economic impact. Goal-line technology is supposed to help the referee rather than replace him, and in so doing to improve the game itself.

However, goal-line technology threatens to have deeper effects on the game for spectators, particularly when experienced as a televised sport. Goal-line technology risks presenting football as a game with a ball fetish. It christens the ball as central object of the game, the thing that matters more than anything else. This attitude makes sense in an era of individual stars (Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar) and televised spectacle, where the game is mediated through cameras that zoom on the player with the ball as he advances, dribbles, and scores. But that is the wrong way to understand football.

Football is a sport played with a ball, in space. If there is a central object one plays with in football, particularly at the highest level of international competion, it is space. Look at Robin van Persie’s incredible header in the Netherlands’ opening match against Spain. That goal was a feast of spaces: the space the Dutch left back Blind saw between the Spanish centerbacks, a space Van Persie saw too, and moved to occupy. The space the striker saw between the paralyzed Spanish goalkeeper and the goal, and the majestic way in which he placed the ball in that space.

My proposition is a counter-intuitive one. After all, American football is the sport usually seen as a game of space, or more specifically, a game of conquering space, while association football is seen as a game of passing a ball around. But the beautiful game is not about a ball: it is a game about a ball that needs to move in space to reach a goal. In American football, space is fixed from play to play, match to match. Movement through it always performs the same action: to capture as much of the field’s territory as possible in order to score a touchdown. But in association football, the game’s space is not fixed; it is in continuous flux, dependent on the movements of the players.

The 2014 World Cup ended Spain’s tyranny over international football. Winners of two EuroCups and one World Cup, Spain had dominated the game consistently and mercilessly between 2008 and 2012, an unprecedented run. And they did so playing tiki-taka, a style of play that favors short passing and substantial player movement. Tiki-taka derives from the Dutch tactical game of the 1970s known  as Total Football. Playing under tiki-taka tactics, in 2009 Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona became the first club to win all possible titles in a year.

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Miguel Sicart is an associate professor at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. He is the author of Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay and Play Matters.

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