Keep Calm, Hawk-Eye Is Here: Goal Line Technology Finally Arrives in the Bundesliga

On Thursday, the DFL GmbH voted by a 15-3 margin – meeting the two-thirds majority requirement – to implement the Hawk-Eye video goal line technology. This approving vote by representatives from the top flight’s eighteen clubs follows on the heel’s of disproving vote in March by representatives from Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 clubs. The technology will only be used in top flight matches, as Bundesliga 2 clubs didn’t vote on the technology. Bayern Munich introduced the item, which passed by a large majority.

Hawk-Eye, a British company, developed and popularize their video-software analysis system in Grand Slam Tennis tournaments. In the British Premier League, Hawk-Eye won the bid to implement the BPL’s new goal line technology system. Basically, a set of fourteen cameras are positioned around stadium grounds, providing various camera angles that a software program uses to analyze and decide whether or not a ball has crossed the goal line. ESPNFC has a helpful explainer video at this link.

Welcome to the 21st century, Bundesliga. Our beloved German league follows on the heels of the British Premier League and the 2014 World Cup as the major global players using goal line technology. Predictably, the response to goal line technology being implemented in Germany seems to be mostly positive from fußball lovers, although some important opposing viewpoints and, perhaps, unintended consequences ought to be considered as well.

To advocates of sport-as-truth-serum, goal line technology is a no-brainer. Ghost goals, like Stefan Kießling’s famous one from last season, or other famous should-have-not-been-given goals (e.g. England vs. Germany in the 2010 World Cup and, again, England vs. Germany in the 1966 World Cup final) would have been prevented from marring the sport’s integrity.

Obviously, such events (outside the parameters established around the sport) directly impacted, or dare I say determined, a match’s result. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here. For moments such as these, goal line technology is indeed a boon for eliminating a whole class of externally derived event-determiners. (Sorry for the jargon, I’m just trying to convey as precisely as possible the class of problem that goal line technology addresses.) For a sport like football, in which goals are incredibly rare and difficult to score, it’s absurd to think that goal line issues should be present at all. The stakes are simply too high. Hawk-Eye solves this absurdity. Huzzah for everybody.

Furthermore, according to reports, the software literally takes only a few seconds to make a decision, which is then sent to the official. So the technology hardly seems like it will interrupt the ebb and flow of a match. In fact, the software will probably make faster decisions than officials on their own in these decisions, who sometimes confer with line judges, etc. Seemingly, Hawk-Eye is also a victor in terms of not disrupting the “natural” flow of a football match. Huzzah for everybody again.

Admittedly, the goal line technology issue seems clear cut: it’s a valid and feasible fix to a problem that should not determine match results. And yet. I think it’s worth complicating this seemingly simple solution for a few minutes. After all, in my reading, with any new technology being implemented in human endeavors, we always already have a belated relationship to understanding technology. Put differently, there’s a gap between what technology does to us and our understanding of the technology’s consequences.

How might this dynamic work out with goal line technology coming to the Bundesliga in 2015-16? Well, the latest episode of Talking Fussball hints at some possibilities during a debate in which Terry Duffelen registered his concerns about the technology.

If you’re feeling incredulous, it’s worth pausing a second. You wonder: Wait, concerns. How on Earth could anyone have concerns about something as sensical and simple as goal line technology? How could anyone indeed.

First, as Dufflen noted there’s the cost. Hawk-Eye surveillance costs around 8,000 € per match. Given that each club hosts 17 matches in the top flight, that’s a 136,000 € cost for the entire season. Sure, it’s small peanuts for the eighteen Bundesliga clubs. However, imagine the same cost (actually it’s 152,000 € in this case) being footed by Bundesliga 2 sides. For a small market side, this sum could be the difference between buying a bargain/prospect player during the transfer window or not, given the sometimes vastly smaller budgets these clubs operate by in Bundesliga 2.

However, I’ll grant that the money in this case shouldn’t be a factor prohibiting an improvement to the sport’s integrity. I’ll grant this point. Yet I wonder if the goal line issue is a frequent enough problem to warrant this “heavy” of a solution? I dunno. But you know who really needs goal line technology? The 5-6 year olds I coach and referee in my son’s city soccer league. Geez, we have a couple goal line issues per match, given the deluge of goals scored! And yet my 5-6 year olds learn to live with the ambiguity. Of course, I’m not implying that fully grown professional men and women should just suck it up and live with the ambiguity, but I do wonder about the magnitude of the solution given the seemingly small magnitude of the problem.

What I find even more concerning, however, is something far more subtle (and almost ideological) buried deep within the heart of this technology solution: namely, the slippery slope of .. what shall I call it? Ultra-professionalization. Super-polished final products. Or simply ensuring that nothing can screw up the massive profits at stake in our neo-liberal / globalized world of sport. Is it any accident that Bayern Munich spearheaded the initiative? (I know, I know, *shots fired*.)

Think about the slippery slope through these examples. First, sure the costs of the technological fix might be bearable this time around, but what about next time? Precedent gets sets with decisions like approving goal line technology – no biggie now, but what about two years from now, five, or ten? It’s hard to foresee just what bond between money and “fixes” has been struck. Second, sure the rhythm of a match is not slowed down by Hawk-Eye now, but what next time?

As an American born-and-bred on the NFL, I’ve lived through the gridiron sport shifting into its mechanized, digitized, “equipmentized,” technologized, hell, “disruptionized” present day. After indulging in the Bundesliga on Saturdays and Sundays, NFL games are unbearably slow in a plodding, almost cubist way that an even slower sport like baseball is not. Perhaps I feel this way because I remember an NFL before instant replay, yellow first down lines, extra TV breaks, coaches challenges, and every touchdown being reviewed. In some ways, the NFL is a legalized caricature of sport. A sport contested over rules and regulations, augmented with technology and equipment.

I know my NFL analogy sounds like catastrophizing, but as an American accustomed to America’s technologized sports, I find fußball so refreshing. The clock doesn’t stop until halftime, then not again until the final whistle. The pitch itself is relatively uncluttered. Instant replay is nonexistent. Coaches don’t challenge stuff with little red beanbag flags. The players are not hidden behind layers of equipment. The officials don’t pause to explain penalties to the crowd over loud speakers. Play is fluid and dynamic with no play-calling, huddling, etc. Yet I know that many people find the NFL compelling for the very presence of elements like play-calling and huddling, or instant replays and challenges, but I’m simply trying to say that watching fußball is existentially (categorically?) different. It’s rhythms are different. It’s relation to time itself is different. It’s relation to its own rules is different. There’s something like another sporting reality at work here.

My hunch is that the role of technology contributes to the differences between the viewing realities of the NFL and fußball. At least I can sense that I’m grope around this slippery notion, which I’m not sure I’ve quite clarified.

So allow me to summarize: my fear with goal line technology is not goal line technology (I think – provisionally at least – I’m in favor of the technology). Rather, my fear is the long path being trodden down here, because my suspicion is that technology is inextricably linked to capital, profits, and branding. And while none of these business elements of football are themselves odious, it’s the almost unquestioned way creep into and come to define football that gives me pause.

Put another way, my concern is not with goal line technology itself, but with the forces at work underneath the technology that compel us to consider the technology, which, it turns out, could really be in the service of something else entirely.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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