France made history in its 3-0 victory over Honduras on Sunday, scoring the first World Cup goal that was confirmed by goal-line technology. French striker Karim Benzema blasted a shot off of the inside of the bar, and it bounced off of Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares just over the line. Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci went to the replay technology to confirm that it was in fact a goal, one that belonged as an own-goal rather than to Benzema, who ended the game with a brace rather than a hat trick.
While much in soccer remains up to the referee’s perceptions and inclinations, FIFA has taken a historic step in the right direction this World Cup by introducing goal line technology. The FIFA laws of the game state that a goal occurs “when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts and under the crossbar.” This may sound simple enough, but it can sometimes be very hard to tell.
Arguably the most controversial World Cup example comes from the 1966 final, where Geoff Hurst gave England a 3-2 lead over West Germany with a controversial goal:
What’s tricky about these sorts of goals is timing and vantage point. The ball may only be in the goal for a fraction of a second and so it can be difficult for a human eye to tell what really happened. It is also plausible that what looks like a goal from the perspectives of the referee and linesman does not reflect the actual position of the ball. In 1996, two Oxford engineers used video sequencing to discover that Hurst’s shot was at least 6 centimeters away from fully crossing the goal line. Ex post-facto science aside, England went on to win that World Cup final 4-2. The Germans are still upset about the injustice of it all.
However, FIFA’s choice to bring goal line technology to this year’s competition probably has more to do with an egregious moment from the 2010 competition in South Africa—again during a match between England and Germany. Frank Lampard’s shot, which would have tied the game 2-2, clearly made it over the goal line, but was disallowed by the referee. Germany won the game 4-1. Later, Uruguayan linesman Mauricio Espinosa admitted that he could not see the ball well enough to make the right call.
FIFA accepted bids from four goal-line technology companies before awarding a probationary contract to German company GoalControl last year. The GoalControl system—which costs around $250,000 to install per stadium—uses 14 high-speed cameras to track the ball’s position both on the field and in the air. If the ball passes the goal line, a buzzing smartwatch alerts the referee within a single second. As BusinessWeek points out, sports with a long tradition often inspire a Luddite streak. The key to GoalControl is that it can discreetly offer goal confirmation without disrupting the flow of the game. During Sunday’s game between Honduras and France, it took just one minute for the TV audience to see that it was in fact a goal.