Innovation has found its way into almost every sector of the economy and facet of daily life. And this is happening on a global scale.
From education to gaming and healthcare to sports, among others, technology has been introduced to improve how things are done in a bid to get better results.
But with sports, particularly football, the jury is still out on whether technology’s impact on the game has been positive.
Before we consider specific tech, it should be noted that the (in)accuracy of refereeing decisions has always been a matter for discourse and the subject of heated contention among stakeholders and fans alike.
Most disputes are usually centred around questionable in-game calls, with probably the most popular being Diego Maradonna’s hand of God in the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico.
With more wrong calls being made on the biggest stage – the World Cup – the 2010 encounter between England and Germany was the last straw. Frank Lampard’s long-range strike struck the bar, and though the ball bounced behind the line, it wasn’t given as a goal.
These occurrences are not peculiar to international competitions alone as national football leagues across the world have had their fair share of controversies: cases abound in England, Spain, France, Germany, and Italy.
Enter GLT and the VAR
Approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in 2012, goal-line technology (GLT) determines whether a football crosses the goal line. And as the name implies, technology is directly involved. Beyond determination of the ball’s position relative to the goal line, there is a transmission of the verdict to the referee via a special watch worn during the game, ensuring there is no stoppage in gameplay.
However, given GLT’s specific design, it doesn’t address issues like handballs, offsides, and off-the-ball incidents in the build-up to a goal.
To remedy these problems, the video assistant referee (VAR) was written into the Laws of the Game (LOTG) by the IFAB in 2018 after being trialled extensively at some major competitions.
The role of the VAR is to assist the referee with decisions related to goals, penalties, direct red card incidents, and cases of mistaken identity.
However, with most things tech-enabled, people expect perfection. Also, with most things tech-enabled, there is a human element. And though there have been marked improvements in decision-making during games with fewer infractions being missed, fans have still found reasons to complain.
Most complaints have been about the inconsistency of some of the VAR’s calls with similar offences getting different rulings. And this is where betting fans, more than others, usually have their hearts in their mouths.
But why is that the case? Aren’t these the issues the tech is meant to address?
How do they work?
Arriving at a VAR decision involves three steps: alerting, reviewing, and deciding.
When an incident occurs, the on-field referee either requests a review by the VAR or the VAR recommends a review. All this happens using headphones and mouthpieces.
Following the VAR’s review of the video footage — from different angles and in slow motion — the on-field referee is informed of the decision to be made. The referee then reviews the footage before the decision is communicated to the players.
At its core, there is not much technology in use with the VAR; it is simply refereeing with the aid of slowed-down video replays. But, it is still refereeing, and the on-field referee takes the final decision.
And because a human gets to make the final decision based on a personal interpretation of the reviewed video, sometimes similar offences get different rulings.
GLT, on the other hand, is an entirely different ball game offering different options.
A 2014 report by The Guardian highlights several systems approved by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the IFAB. At the time of the report, GoalControl — a German GLT product — was in use at the World Cup in Brazil.
The system is set up with 14 high-speed cameras positioned around the stadium with seven facing each goal. It works by tracking the ball’s flight and detecting if it has crossed the line.
Probably more popular than GoalControl, because of its use in cricket, tennis, and snooker, Hawk-Eye, another system, uses high-speed video cameras scattered around the pitch.
As with GoalControl, each goal mouth needs seven cameras. The number of cameras in use is justified by the need to have a system that operates even when several cameras are blocked. Hawk-Eye uses cameras to triangulate and track the position and flight of the ball and was used during the 2013-2014 Premier League season in the UK.
In a move away from cameras, Cairos Technologies and Adidas came up with the Cairos GLT system that uses a magnetic field to track the ball. For this to happen, a sensor, which detects the magnetic field produced by thin wires under the penalty box, is placed inside the ball. A computer tracks the ball’s position through the sensor and determines when the ball crosses the goal line.
Quite similar to the Cairos GLT system is GoalRef which uses a magnetic field-based technology. But in this case, the goal frame is the sensor that detects the ball’s passage.
While it is clear that GLT involves more tech than the VAR, which requires human interpretation, the GLT is not entirely automated. The systems in place to monitor the ball cross the line are automated, but the final decision is the referee’s to make.
Both innovations appear to have significantly reduced errors in the game, but the presence of humans in the decision-making process, however minimal, suggests that perfection might not be attainable.
But when the degree of technology in play is considered, most people will agree that GLT is the more accurate innovation.
However, there is a problem: GLT is only used when there is contention about a goal. And this is just one of the many things that can happen during a football game.
For instance, if a foul in the build-up to a goal that GLT awards gets reviewed by the VAR, the goal gets chalked off.
Interestingly, on average, there are more VAR reviews than GLT checks. And therein lies the fans’ challenge with the VAR.
Impact on betting fans
With betting being a big part of Nigeria’s football culture, many fans are usually apprehensive when referees signal that they are going over to review the video evidence of an on-field incident.
Seeing as betting is a game of odds and bets are placed on anything — from the number of cards and corners in a match to which player scores and how many goals a team gets — it is not strange to hear Nigerian online bettors talk a lot about how the VAR and GLT impacted the outcome of a game.
For bettors, there is no telling what the outcome of a VAR call will be.
In a recent match between Real Madrid and Real Sociedad in the Spanish La Liga, the two goals scored by Madrid were controversially given by the VAR.
Steven, a regular online bettor, told Techpoint Africa that he bet on Real Madrid ov2.5 to defeat Real Sociedad, and the VAR gave Madrid’s two goals in the game which ended 2-1.
Steven’s stake in the game was an outcome of three or more goals. If the VAR had denied one or both of Madrid’s goals, his stake would’ve been lost, but since they were given, alongside Real Sociedad’s lone goal, Steven won his bet.
Quite unlike Steven’s experience, Femi had VAR to blame for his unsuccessful bet.
In this instance, he placed a bet on Crystal Palace to score between one and three goals in an English Premier League (EPL) match against Aston Villa. A controversial decision by the VAR saw Crystal Palace’s lone goal disallowed and the bettor lose his stake.
Obviously, with the VAR, online bettors are more on edge than ever during games, with no idea what decision will ensure they make or lose money.
Looking to the future
Innovation is like a wheel in perpetual motion, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if better ways than the VAR and GLT are devised to eliminate human errors during football games.
However, in the grand scheme of things, GLT and the VAR weren’t introduced to improve online bettors’ odds. Betting has always been a game of odds and nothing, not even innovation, will change that.
What are your thoughts?
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Sub Editor at Techpoint Africa