DOHA: If Arab unity is visible on the streets of Qatar, Europe seemed to come together on the night Japan beat Spain in Qatar. The second goal, turned in by Ao Tanaka from a ball put in by Kaoru Mitoma, one that effectively knocked Germany out of the tournament, seemed to have the entire lineup for former European footballers, pundits and Twitter warriors on the same page.
From their point of view, the ball went out and Spain should have had a goal kick. South African referee Victor Gomes, assisted by VAR Fernando Guerrero clearly thought otherwise. The entire ball had not crossed the line, is what they saw; the goal stood and both Spain and Japan qualified.
Many of the same pundits who normally favour the use of technology, including former England star Gary Neville, suddenly want the entire system to be binned. FIFA took pains to explain the ‘curvature’ of a football, essentially saying that even if the part in contact with the grass was outside the line, not all of the ball had crossed over when Mitoma hooked it back in. That, quite simply, is the rule.
In the post match press conference, English-speaking reporters pressed Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu and player of the match Tanaka, for their thoughts. Since FIFA had brought in all this technology, and the refs had taken the call, who were they to dispute it, the Japanese implied.
Spain coach Luis Enrique himself was unequivocal. Though he was visibly upset with the way his side had collapsed in the second half to a Japan who were intelligent, aggressive, technically solid and defensively almost perfect, Enrique said he had complete faith in the technology and the systems FIFA had in place.
VAR and the new semi-automated offside technology have been the subject of much debate this World Cup. Debates have raged since the first round when two Argentina goals were cancelled out by the new system and Saudi Arabia went on to a famous victory. Had Argentina gone out of the tournament as well, the story would have been different.
In fact, FIFA has been taking pains to talk about the new tech from the start of the World Cup. After Portugal’s first game, when Twitter was convinced Ronaldo got some skin on the Bruno Fernandes strike that eventually found the back of the net, a statement read, “In the match between Portugal and Uruguay, using the Connected Ball Technology housed in adidas's Al Rihla Official Match Ball, we are able to definitively show no contact on the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo for the opening goal in the game. No external force on the ball could be measured as shown by the lack of 'heartbeat' in our measurements. The 500Hz IMU sensor inside the ball allows us to be highly accurate in our analysis."
Real time data from ball
The match ball developed by Adidas in close collaboration with FIFA and KINEXON includes technology meant to provide real-time data to match officials. Apart from other info, the sensor captures every touch and is connected to associated technologies including the in-stadia camera system that allow the VAR to make informed decisions. It also provides precise, correlatable positional information from the ball, all of which is at the disposal of match officials and why it took some time for them to reach a decision. It is also tied in with the semi-auto offside system that we are seeing for the first time at a World Cup. It has 12 tracking cameras around the stadium apart from a sensor inside the Al Rihla ball, giving the VAR an automatic offside and eliminating the need for protracted replays.
Even the normally balanced Neville, commentating on British network ITV, found this intriguing. “But from that very first offside goal, Ecuador vs Qatar in game one, I’ve struggled with it a little bit that we (the TV commentators/viewers) not been given the correct angles,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel right. In the Premier League we see all the VAR cameras, here we don’t.”
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The larger issue with the use of technology, particularly expensive, high end technology that can never be implemented at the grassroots, in a sport as widely played as football. Essentially, it creates a difference in how the game is played and judged. And if football's influential men can call for all of it to be thrown out the window – and we go back to a time when the human element is the most important element in football – then no one would be happier.