One of the best things about soccer is its simplicity. All you need to play the game are people, a ball, and a playing area with goal space at either end. Each time tries to hit the ball in the other team’s goal space, using anything but their hands, and that’s pretty much it. Scoring is easy; one goal equals one point. Except for the off-sides bit and perhaps a couple of other finer points, soccer is easy to play, easy to follow and fast. It’s been this way since game rules were first codified in England in 1863, but with the current World Cup, it appears that it may finally be time for soccer to adapt to a technological era. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, does not do instant replays, so every call is subject to the perspective of one ref on the field and two sideline assistants. Under this system, FIFA referees in the South African World Cup have disallowed one good goal by England and two by the United States, and allowed what was clearly not a goal from Argentina in their match with Mexico. In light of all this, FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced yesterday that he would consider using technology to settle disputed goals.
When I heard this, I imagined Rip Van Winkle waking up to find everyone around him peering into laptops and cellphones, and learning that someone was live-streaming him as he drooled in his sleep. It’s hard to believe that it took multiple controversial goals during a World Cup series to make FIFA think twice about using video to review goals. For one thing, the pitch is already surrounded by cameras. In most professional soccer games, a line of cameras are set up on the ground behind each net, and peering over the barricades are photographers from every major media outlet throughout the world. Inside those barricades and over the top of the stadium, additional cameras are working to bring the game live to millions of people watching on television. We watch those disputed calls over and over again on our televisions, phones and computers, seeing clearly what the ref did not, and maybe getting angrier with each replay. I understand that part of the fun of soccer is the human element, but in a world constantly adapting to technological advancements, it is crazy for FIFA to think it would be spared the task of growing up at least a little.
So what does this have to do with media literacy? For one thing, it exemplifies the subjectivity which is so present in our media–a referee, like a journalist, is making a call based on his perspective. It would be dishonest to make a call based on a report from the other players or coaches, because they have their own perspectives and agendas. The referee is the anointed judge with final authority, and in a perfect world, the referee is also completely impartial to who wins or loses the game being played.
The referee calls also point to how frustrating it is when opinions and facts cannot be contested. As Americans, we are used to the idea of freedom of speech, and are more often than not actually encouraged to openly question leadership. We talk back on blogs, we write letters to the editor, we write emails to our representatives, we protest loudly outside the buildings where decisions are made. It is perhaps especially infuriating for us to be told that even though we have hard evidence of a mistake, the evidence does not matter and the wrong will not be made right. Our freedom to talk back is one we take for granted, and instances like phantom goal calls (trite as they may be to some) remind us of the luxury of that freedom. It’s easy to abuse it or forget about it entirely, until it is taken away.
Finally, we come to FIFA itself, the body which for so long and so strongly resisted integrating technology with the beautiful game, and which has now been painfully and publicly kicked into reconsidering how the digital era changes a sport. The rest of us also have to adapt and become media literate if we expect to thrive in a digital world.