The Beautiful, Invisible Game

And how technology can help or hurt our ability to understand the sport

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.

Tiki-taka was both praised and loathed. If you watched Barcelona or the Spanish national team play, you’d endure moments when players were just passing the ball to each other from side to side of the pitch, not making any attempt at a goal—or even to work the ball toward one. These teams based their defense and offence on maximizing ball possession time, combined with aggressive pressing once they took control of the ball. For many fans, particularly television viewers, tiki-taka can seem boring.

That is, boring only because fans were led to believe that the most important feature of the game is the ball moving towards players. They were not looking at the game, but a mediated interpretation of the game, one that fetishizes the ball at the expense of the space it moves through.

Tiki-taka, the passing game, is not really a passing game. It’s passing and moving, a touch of the ball and a run to an open space, to create another open space. It’s keeping the ball in movement, fast, so that new spaces can be created by disorganizing the opposing team. In this World Cup so far, Germany plays the most interesting version of the passing game. Their midfielders (Götze, Lahm, Kroos) are never static, they are always moving towards open spaces, and thus vacating other spaces to fashion new opportunities. And of course the Germans also have Müller, a striker whose talent is not technique, or power, but the capacity to read spaces. Müller will score because he sees the spaces where things will happen and maneuvers himself to get there.

One broadcasting technology does get the objectless of space in football right: the offside visualization. The offside rule is notoriously difficult to understand, especially if you’ve never seen a match live. But once understood it’s straightforward: all attacking players must always be behind at least one defender from the opposing team when the ball is passed to them.

Visualization from the 2014 World Cup television broadcast, showing that Bosnia-Herzigovina was wrongly disallowed a goal due to a referee's offside call (ESPN).

That’s the way the rule is normally explained from the perspective of the ball, anyway. When described from the perspective of the field instead, it makes even more sense: the attacking player must always be in a space also occupied by the opposing team. The broadcast visualization of the offside rule greys out the offside space, so we can see if any offending players occupy it. In so doing, the visualization also reveals the space of the pitch as the object of the game of football.

Football has not changed much in the last few decades. And most of these changes have come from tournament design rather than from changes to the sport’s rules. What has changed radically, however are the technologies used to  broadcast the game. Watch closely during the next televised match: the player with the ball will always be in the center of the shot, sometimes even framed in close-up. The replays are aired from an even tighter perspective. When broadcast, football becomes a game that a group of individuals play together around a ball and two goals, their movements somewhat synchronized.

But unlike American football, the technologies of broadcasting have not changed the object of association football: the sport is still played in and with space, even if we don’t see it that way—even if television actively prevents us from seeing it that way. It’s no longer the game of the Magical Magyars, La Máquina, the Clockwork Orange, Di Stefano’s Real Madrid or Cruyff’s Dream Team. This is a game of Messis and Ronaldos, Rooneys and Neymars. A game of comfortable, easy to consume narratives about heroes’ victories and failures. The game doesn't change, but our perception of it does.

The 2014 tournament’s goal line technology offers television broadcasting yet another way to hide the true object of the game. It’s a sleight of hand: just as the magician tricks us into focusing on his hands, so the football broadcaster  tricks us into focusing on the ball. In both cases, when we accept the illusionist’s invitation we fail to look for where the magic actually happens.

We call football the Beautiful Game, but perhaps we ought to call it the invisible game, at least for us television spectators. For it is a game that is played with spaces that actors—some human, some not—manipulate to reach a goal. In football we make the pitch’s space ours, we squeeze it, extend it, and discover it. Those who play, know. Those who attend, know. But those who watch—as most of us do—are fooled by television’s insistence that we focus on the ball, and we miss the beauty of the invisible game.

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