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.