It’s not clear that smartwatches will ever make the leap from the tech hype cycle to the real world, but the devices will get at least one highly visible cameo on a particularly big stage. Referees at the World Cup this year will wear watches that will vibrate and display the word “GOAL” each time a ball crosses the goal line.
FIFA has been discussing goal-line technology since the months following the 2010 World Cup. That tournament saw England denied a score in a match against Germany even though the ball had clearly passed the goal line. As FIFA helpfully notes in the video below, this kind of stuff happens from time to time:
FIFA began testing goal-line technology and approved its use in 2012. Most sports with a long tradition inspire a Luddite streak, and soccer is no different, so the move introducing monitoring of the goal line has been deliberate. The device can be used only to determine if the ball has crossed the line, and referees must be notified within one second. Only match officials can receive these scoring notifications.
The buzzing watches serve only as a recommendation—the referee still makes the final call on a goal. “The technology must provide a clear indication as to whether the ball has fully crossed the line, and this information will serve to assist the referee in taking his final decision,” FIFA states in a training manual for companies seeking to have their technologies licensed for the Wold Cup.
The smartwatches used in Brazil are made by a German company called GoalControl, which installs 14 cameras that track the ball around the pitch. It was first used in the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, a tournament that passed without goal-line controversy.
FIFA is also open to systems that track the ball through magnetic fields created by underground cables, although these would require physical alterations to the ball itself. This has obvious downsides, given elite soccer players’ famous finickiness about the balls they use.
There is still the opportunity for last-minute, pitch-level rejection of the goal-watching system. Before each match, the GoalControl system will be tested, and then the referee will decide whether to use it or not. “If he would say, ‘I don’t want to use it because I’m not sure if it’s really working,’ then of course both teams will be informed immediately,” Johannes Holzmüller, a FIFA executive, told the New York Times.