NEW YORK (AP) – The world's most popular sport stands on the brink this week, preparing to dip its toe into the waters of technology. With soccer's leading administrator nervous, almost everyone else impatient for the refreshment of certainty over whether or not the ball has passed over the game's most fundamental stretch of line: that which must be wholly crossed for a goal to be awarded.
The debate is nearly over. The game's ultimate rule-making body - The International Football Association Board (IFAB), an arm of the supreme Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) - meets Thursday and is understood to decide which two systems to license for use in major leagues over the forthcoming European season.
Interestingly enough, the powerful Barclays Premier League is especially keen to go ahead, giving goal-line technology a chance to become reality when the Premier League kicks off next month. Fans have always liked the idea and it has become apparent that match officials are behind it too.
You may be wondering what the fuss is about, for American sports pioneered the technological assistance that has since spread to tennis and such hitherto arch-conservative team sports as rugby and cricket. The legions of Europe's soccer audience, so used to watching the match officials of the NFL - looking like ageing Juventus supporters in their black and white stripes. But they were so clearly respected - signaling for replays of close calls - and they left us wondering why our referees could not call on similar assistance, at least on whether the ball had crossed the line.
We all knew why Sepp Blatter, the long-serving president of FIFA, initially opposed it. Quite apart from his almost quaint regard for the preservation of the "human factor," he feared any interruption to a game whose allure depended on continuity.
Yet, almost miraculously, he is convinced that the two systems bidding for acceptance this week will have an instant effect in the form of a beep or buzz in the referee's ear. To the delight of English and other British associations, - for historical reasons, the British have four seats on the IFAB, as many as the rest of the world combined - the sport is embracing the times it has come to dominate.
So everyone's happy, right? Don't count on it, as a chance encounter in a Warsaw hotel lobby the week before last confirmed. There I met Michel Platini, who is president of by far the most powerful of soccer's continental confederations - the European, known as UEFA - and strongly tipped to succeed Blatter in 2015. He shook his head firmly at the very notion of technology in soccer and insisted that the game was about to make an "historical mistake."
I agree with him; not for the reasons he gives, which are that the game must always be controlled by humans - I would go further than the IFAB intends to go without breaking this principle - but because GLT will change the game for ever by creating a thirst for exactitude that can never be quenched.
The debate thus far has been almost unbelievably superficial. No one ever seems to take into account the tiny proportion of issues that require technology other than plain television. Few Europeans can remember the last goal-line decision that television could not resolve because it took place in 1966, when an assistant referee ruled that a shot by England's Geoff Hurst had crossed the line against West Germany in the World Cup final.
Since then, there have been injustices that television has rendered blatant, such as the drive by another Englishman, Frank Lampard, that came down from the German crossbar in the most recent World Cup two years ago and fell nearly a meter over the line before spinning out and being denied because neither the referee nor his assistants had a clear view.
According to Blatter, that put GLT, which he had previously opposed, back on the agenda; hence the process leading to the IFAB this week. But the Lampard incident, however regrettable, was not the only denial of justice that day. Argentina scored a goal against Mexico that was offside by an even greater margin than Lampard's was over the line.
If GLT had been in operation, the English would have got what they deserved and the Mexicans been left furiously to ask why technology applied to one aspect of soccer but not another that comes more frequently into play. That is why I have always argued, and a growing body of opinion has come to agree, that simple televisual assistance for referees would be infinitely more effective than GLT in bringing the game up to date with the expectations of its audience.
Platini has his own views. The French legend prefers to station additional assistant referees on the goal-line, pointing out that they can help referees in ways technological devices directed only at the goals cannot. But my method would be to restore the original, 140-year-old balance between the referee and the spectator.
When the rules were first put in order by English pioneers in the latter half of the 19th century, both relied on the naked eye. The invention of television changed nothing, because for many years soccer was low on its list of priorities. Only in the boom of soccer and television over the past 20 years, as the game has become subject to constant replay and analysis, has the referee's occasional misjudgment turned into a matter of certainty. Even the latest such controversy involved, as Platini pointed out after England's match against Ukraine, hardly ever had to do whether the ball simply crossed the line
If the referee had the same extra eye as the spectator - if his principal assistant was watching television and in touch by earphone - we would have a level playing field and a reasonable chance of justice for all. Instead, we are having the relative irrelevance of GLT. Why? We're told that sponsors are queuing to pay for it because they can see the future potential in a game that has sold itself to technology and cannot envisage life without this new drug. This is an "historical mistake" all right and even Platini cannot save us from it. After Thursday, I fear, soccer will never be the same again.