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World Cup: On referees, replays and business analytics
Delaney Turner 270002T14M firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  business_analytics world_cup
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Sometimes it pays to procrastinate.
Halfway though Sunday's World Cup game between Germany and England I had half-crafted a post decrying FIFA's obstinate stance against the use of video replay - or technology of any sort - to assist officials in making difficult calls.
I wasn't alone. Complaints on the blogosphere that began with Thierry Henry's double handball in the qualifying match against the Rebublic of Ireland have now grown as loud as the much-maligned vuvuzelas, thanks to a series of suspect or clearly blown calls - including Frank Lampard's Shot Seen 'Round the World.
Still, in light of it all, FIFA and its head Sepp Blatter had considered the matter closed.
At a media briefing today in Johannesburg, Blatter apologized for two blown calls (including Lampard's non-goal) and re-opened the debate on goal-line technology. According to the BBC, Blatter said the issue will now form part of the agenda at next month's meeting of the International FA Board (IFAB), the body that decides the laws of the game. "It is obvious that after the experiences so far at this World Cup it would be a nonsense not to reopen the file on goal-line technology," stated Blatter.
Possible solutions include the Adidas / Cairos system, which uses a microchip embedded in the ball and "Hawk-Eye", which uses cameras. FIFA has experimented - and has issues - with both; Cairos is too expensive to be implemented consistently everywhere (football federations would need to pay royalties) and Hawk-Eye doesn't provide a complete view of the playing surface. Says Blatter, "it can only see what the camera sees."
I can't argue with the Adidas / Cairos option because I have no idea what it costs. But I have two issues with Blatter's reluctance to use Hawk-Eye, or a similar system. And, naturally, I've connected them to business analytics.
First, he has framed the technology issue as an "all or nothing" proposition. But anyone who's begun a business analytics journey knows that technology implementations are inevitably iterative. The criterion to use - particularly in the early stages - isn't whether implementing the solution solves the problem completely - it's whether or not it provides people with something (in this case, clarity) that wasn't there before. Most of our clients start by providing their users with basic information, then expand with additional capabilities and data as their comfort and expertise levels increase. There are always more reports, more data, and more users.
The second issue is that Blatter seems to believe that technology will remove the human dimension to the game. As a soccer player and romantic, I can understand this point, but I can't support it. Sometimes, technology must trump romance. As Stephen Brunt points out today, there are now cameras on the lines at Wimbeldon, a tournament equally steeped in history and tradition as the World Cup.
It comes down to credibility, both for the officials and the sport. In our analytical, data-driven age, spectators are far more likely to trust an official who supports his calls with impartial, empirical evidence than one who relies on the shopworn "because I said so." They would rather officials be correct than not. Nor does technology undermine their authority - in the NHL and NFL, the on-field call stands in cases where the video replays are inconclusive. Further, adding cameras to the pitch will increase officials' visibility into the field of play. The official in Sunday's game was in the correct position to call an offside, but his position prevented him from seeing that Lampard's shot had crossed the goal line.
NHL hockey, NFL football and professional tennis have all progressed through this transition to computer-aided calls. Soccer is gaining popularity in the U.S. But if it's to achieve a real breakthrough, FIFA will need to address the credibility issue head-on.
"He was off-side. Because I said so. End of discussion."
Think about it - how much credibility would you expect to have if you used that line in a meeting?
Any official can blow the odd call. Officials are just as human - and just as fallible - as the players. But when glaringly bad ones become one of the main story lines in the showcase event for your product, you have to admit that the old way of doing things may not be working anymore. Whether on the pitch or in the meeting room, thing are moving more quickly than ever before. There's simply too much at stake to be wrong.
Finally, speaking of cameras on the field, here's a clip from the film "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait." The filmmakers in this case used more than 20 to follow France and Real Madrid star Zinedine Zidane throughout the course of a single game. Perhaps a way forward for FIFA as well?