In getting machines to help men spot when goals are scored, soccer is making a mistake. This pact with the devil of goal-line technology will come at a cost to the sport's soul.
Policed solely by humans, soccer can offer lessons on life for those prepared to listen.
Referees who fail to spot when the ball has crossed the goal line, or who award a goal when it hasn't, remind us that nobody will ever be perfect and that making mistakes is part of the human condition.
So, too, is trying to make as few mistakes as possible. Many referees do that admirably week after week. It would be better for them, the game, and for our blood pressure if we were more accepting of the maybe 5 percent of big decisions that match officials get wrong, instead of insulting them or squandering millions on technological aids.
Accepting the golden rule that the referee's word is final, even when he or she is wrong, also teaches respect for authority—something our societies are hardly over-stocked with.
An incorrectly awarded or disallowed goal can feel grossly unfair, just as life does sometimes, too. Those who win don't always deserve to and those who lose sometimes should have won. Again, soccer can teach us to shrug a shoulder at that, to move on and trust that justice will be done next time.
So, ultimately, this is about choices. Do we accept flaws, even cherish them, or kick, scream and demand they be excised like an unsightly mole?
I used to be one of the screamers. I was there and angry when a linesman from Uruguay missed Frank Lampard's perfectly good goal for England against Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I repeatedly wrote that goal-line technology was needed, took swipes at FIFA boss Sepp Blatter for resisting it and likened technophobes to dinosaurs. Bring in infallible machines!
Yet now that goal-line technology is actually upon us, I find that I've become a dinosaur, too. Having lobbied for the soccer equivalent of plain, white bread—games stripped of goal-line errors—I now find myself hungry for whole wheat—matches with human dramas, flaws and moral lessons. In soccer, goal-line controversies and errors have always been part of the feast and, I realize now that they're facing extinction, part of the charm.
These things stick in our craw and so give us stuff to chew over long after the final whistle is blown. As Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand asked: What will be left for us to debate in the pub? "Will we miss it?" he tweeted. I, for one, now think I will.
The cameras of Hawk-Eye and GoalControl—the first chosen by the English Premier League, the second by FIFA for the 2014 World Cup—could have told us whether Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov correctly called Geoff Hurst's goal in the 101st minute for England against Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. How sad. Because that would have deprived soccer of a call so infamously controversial that it has endured as a story through the decades since.
Which also shows that such incidents are remembered not because they happen every week but because they don't. Even fewer of the goals wrongly given or not are actually decisive.
After referee Martin Atkinson wrongly awarded Chelsea a goal in the 2012 FA Cup, Harry Redknapp griped: "We've seen so many matches over the years decided by wrong decisions that it's farcical."
But his statement doesn't hold up to scrutiny. His Tottenham team lost that semifinal 5-1. If allowed, Lampard's goal would not have prevented England's loss to a superior Germany in 2010. Hurst scored another goal in the last minute in 1966 to make the final score 4-2. So only very rarely will goal-line technology prevent sporting injustice.
The Premier League calculates that the technology, if installed this season, could have proved useful in around 20 of some 320 matches played thus far. In many of those, the ball was either clearly over the line or clearly not, few were difficult calls, and officials mostly got them right. Perhaps the most glaring error was referee Mike Jones not awarding a goal when Victor Anichebe's header for Everton crossed Newcastle's goal-line in September.
GoalControl costs $260,000-$330,000 per stadium to install. There are also small running costs of $3,900-$5,200 per match. Hawk-Eye and the Premier League won't say how much their system will cost for the English clubs who'll need the cameras perhaps just once per season. But with the money going on goal-line technology in England and at 12 World Cup stadiums in Brazil , you could have rebuilt the bombed-out soccer stadium in Gaza, laid the first turf pitch in Bangladesh and paid for the first artificial grass field in Greenland and still have come out with perhaps a couple of million dollars in change.
And the goal-line is just a first frontier for machines. With cameras watching the goal area, technophiles will more readily be able to argue that they should also be used to expose off-sides and fouls that referees miss. GoalControl managing director Dirk Broichhausen said they are already developing software to automatically spot handball. "Not tomorrow, but in the future years it will be possible," he said.
Sounds scary, suspiciously like the start of technological creep into soccer if the game's guardians aren't vigilant. Although soccer also is big business, it is first and foremost a game. Keep it simple and human, warts and all.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester