Making the (Soccer) Call
By Jeff Goldman, Mon Feb 17 06:00:00 GMT 2003

Can wireless technology help to prevent some of the fiercest debates in the game of football?


After almost forty years, it's still one of the most intensely disputed moments in football history. In the final of the 1966 World Cup, England's Geoff Hurst scored the game-winning goal against West Germany-or did he?

Surrounded by defenders, Hurst took the shot from inside the penalty box. The ball bounced against the crossbar, shot straight down, then spun out of the goal. After a brief pause to consult his linesmen, the referee awarded the goal to England-who went on to win the game, and the Cup. You can watch the entire game online today, but you'll still never know for certain whether or not that ball crossed the goal line.

In order to provide more certainty for the game of football, Germany's Cairos Technologies, working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, is developing a wireless tracking system that uses microwave transmitters and a network of antennas to determine the precise position, speed, and direction of the ball and of each player at any time.

Christian Holzer, Cairos Technologies' Head of Research and Development, says the 1966 "Wembley goal" wasn't the only driving force behind the company's efforts. Company founder Roland Schmider has long been president of the Karlsruhe Sport Club, and has seen similar incidents facing his own football team. It's a universal problem, and one for which Holzer believes he has the answer.

Enhancing the Game


Using tiny microwave transmitters placed in the ball and in the players' shin pads, the Cairos system sends data to a device on the referee's wrist-as well as to any other interested party, including broadcasters, coaches, and fans. That data can include the precise position of the ball for goals and for offside calls, but it can also include the speed of the ball, the position of the players, or even the strength of a kick.

The point, Holzer explains, is that such data could not only help referees to make more reliable calls, it could also help coaches to train their players more precisely, help fans learn more facts about their favorite stars, and even give gamblers more to bet on-who had the strongest kick of the match? "The system makes the sport more transparent," he said. "I think it will make the game more attractive to the fans."

Cairos also hopes to derive significant advertising revenue from the system, allowing companies to tie their advertisements to specific pieces of data the system provides to fans, whether online, on television, or on the stadium scoreboard. If a fan looks up his favorite player's statistics online, for example, that data might come 'sponsored by Mercedes.' "You can decide which advertisement you want to connect with which specific data," Holzer said.

The system is currently being tested at Nuremberg's Franconia Stadium. It can't yet be used during matches, because the transmitters are currently about the size of a matchbox-no player would be willing to wear a transmitter that size on his shin pad. By 2004, Cairos hopes to have shrunk them down to the size of a coin.

Once the Cairos system is developed to its full potential, Holzer suggests, it will have a wide range of applications that reach far beyond football. It could be used for just about any other sport, from auto racing to ice hockey, and for a number of different non-sports applications as well. "You could use the system to track specific goods, for example, in a harbor or in a warehouse," he said.

An Uphill Battle


Cairos is not the only company working on this kind of technology. It faces competition from Austria's ABATEC and from the MIT-based company, Trakus. But Cairos is aiming higher than most: the company's plan is to have its system in place and accepted in time for the 2006 World Cup-which would be precisely forty years after Hurst's hotly debated goal.

In order to do so, however, Cairos will first have to convert FIFA, the international football association. That won't be easy. FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot is very clear on one key concept: technology and football don't mix. "We believe that football is a human game played by human beings, and should be officiated by human beings-with no technological assistance," he said.

Holzer insists that Cairos doesn't want to take away from the human element: he's very clear about what his company's technology can and cannot do. "The system can only decide whether a ball crossed a line or not," he said. "It can't decide if somebody made a foul, or if somebody touched the ball with their hands: that's not possible. It just makes things easier and more secure for the referees."

Maingot's other concern, though, is economic: one of FIFA's essential missions is to guarantee the universality of the game of football. When technology is introduced, the cost and the complexity of that technology can become a barrier between players. "If we are to guarantee the universality of the game, we cannot have the technology in place in one part of the world and not in another," he said.

At $250,000 per stadium, the cost could be a significant factor-though Holzer says Cairos is planning to offer the system both for sale and for lease, allowing smaller football clubs to make use of it on a short term basis. Regardless, for many German fans, any price would be worth paying for a system that could make all goals certain-unlike the one they're still debating from back in 1966.

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.