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The Games That Defined Modern Football: Germany 4-1 England (2010)

In the aftermath of Tottenham’s 0-0 draw with Watford in January, even Jose Mourinho couldn’t complain about the decision not to award his team a goal after Erik Lamela’s injury-time shot appeared to cross the line.

“That's how it is,” the Spurs manager said in his post-match press conference. “I know it was only a couple of millimetres but goal-line technology doesn't make mistakes like the VAR makes.”

It was an unprompted comparison to Video Assisted Refereeing, but a telling one. VAR had overshadowed the 2019-20 Premier League season prior to its hiatus and, unlike goal-line technology (GLT), analysing replays wasn’t producing black-and-white decisions.  

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Why had we ever expected objectivity from VAR? When, in its troubled history, had the technology ever promised to deliver 100 per cent accuracy or to eliminate debate?  

The most likely answer to those questions is conflation.

GLT – green-lit by International Football Association Board (IFAB) in 2012 – introduced the football world to technology as robotic; algorithmic; certain. The language we use around VAR sets unrealistic expectations, conforming to an idea of technology that was implanted in the collective consciousness by a system functioning in an entirely different way.

And yet despite GLT’s uniqueness as a technological addition to the sport, allowing Hawk Eye proved (as so many of its critics in the 2000s predicted) to be the thin end of the wedge: breaking the invisible barrier, making technology acceptable, and authorising the use of apparatus that differentiates the top tier from grassroots football.

Without Goal-line technology, we would not have VAR.

In other words, had referee Jorge Larrionda or his officials noticed that Frank Lampard’s shot had crossed the line in England’s 2010 World Cup defeat to Germany, we would not be analysing armpits, worrying about dotted yellow lines or throwing to a darkened room in Stockley Park.

It all began, of course, with Luis Garcia’s 'ghost goal' in Liverpool's 2005 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea.

Luis Garcia Liverpool Chelsea 2004-05 Champions LeagueGetty Images

Murmurs of implementing a Goal Decision System predated that April night at Anfield, but it was the controversy surrounding the home side's winner that led directly to IFAB giving the Premier League permission to begin testing 12 months later.

Although it is highly likely that had the referee disallowed the goal, he would have awarded a penalty and a red card for a foul by Petr Cech on Milan Baros in the build-up, it nevertheless felt mildly embarrassing that football was guessing important calls on the biggest stage. Cricket, for example, first used Hawk Eye during England and Pakistan’s Test series in 2001.

However, IFAB put a halt on things in 2008, opting to test extra officials behind the goal rather than introduce technology which would break the universality of football’s laws.

“We have 260 million people directly involved in the game,” Sepp Blatter said of the decision. “If we maintain the laws of the game... it's easy to understand. We have to live with errors. Football has to keep its human face.”

Blatter was always strongly against technology in football and, irrespective of one’s opinion on VAR, it cannot be argued the former FIFA president was prescient on that final point. To this day, we are still learning, still failing to live with errors or to accept football’s human face.

However, within two years, IFAB – and even Blatter – had performed a dramatic U-turn.

“It’s obvious that after the experiences so far at this World Cup it would be a nonsense not to reopen the file on goal-line technology,” Blatter told reporters on June 30 2010, three days after Germany beat England 4-1 to advance to the quarter-finals.

One solitary event – one perfect shot of Lampard, head in hands, aghast and distraught – had changed everything.

What is often forgotten about Lampard’s goal is its extraordinary beauty. It wasn’t just over the line – “It’s so far in,” in the immortal words of BBC commentator Guy Mowbray – it was perhaps one of England’s greatest ever World Cup goals: a deft, impudent half-volley that somehow lobbed the world’s best goalkeeper despite Manuel Neuer standing not three yards off his line.

That made it all the more devastating in the moment, even if Germany’s domination from start to finish meant England probably would have lost regardless.

Then again, coming back from 2-0 down to 2-2 could have swung momentum towards Fabio Capello’s side, whereas the injustice of Lampard’s 'ghost goal' left England shell-shocked and deflated.

Blatter was sympathetic – or perhaps simply embarrassed. This was FIFA’s tournament, the world stage, and their officials had made a laughably bad mistake. The irony of Blatter’s reluctance to embrace GLT despite widespread calls for its implementation can only have increased his shame.

Germany England 2010 World Cup

It was finally approved by IFAB in 2012, and it came as no surprise when the Premier League were the first to take it up.

The English had been desperate to get hold of GLT, first alerted to its importance by Garcia’s toe-poke and now seriously wounded by Lampard’s phantom strike. Premier League supporters were soothed, however slightly, by the mathematical certainty added to their game.

Over the next four years, it was implemented in a further three of Europe’s top five leagues: Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, and Serie A. Football had embraced technology; the elite leagues had elevated themselves above the laws used at a lower level. The seal was broken.  

“Looking at 15 camera angles, trying to find something that was potentially not even there – this was not the idea of the VAR principle,” Lukas Brod, general secretary of IFAB, said in December 2019 in criticism of Mike Riley’s use of the technology in England. “This is the problem – people are trying to be too forensic.”

The Premier League has taken to VAR with a zeal that reaches far beyond the technology’s initial intention to correct ‘clear and obvious’ errors. Excruciating freeze frames on offsides only make the decision clear and obvious after forensic analysis; it’s an interpretation that can feel like a deliberate semantic trick, but one that aligns with the English mentality – post goal-line tech – of searching for machine-like truths.

Similarly, the Premier League’s refusal to use pitch-side monitors alludes to GLT and its gift for imparting calming, reassuring, inviolable truth; arriving fully formed to the referee’s watch like wisdom from a higher being.

So too with VAR and an earpiece. England must “accept the help” of the monitors, Infantino said in December. To put it another way, they must take on-field responsibility and accept “the human face” of the sport.

England may well adapt its strategy over the next few years, ironing out some of the major flaws and coming to terms with the fundamental difference between GLT – our only previous reference point for tech in sport – and VAR.  

Either way, it is self-evident that the introduction of GLT in 2012 paved the way for a future of football and technology irreversibly intertwined.

FIFA is currently testing an AI-infused limb-tracking device to automate marginal offside calls, the logical next step in the hunt for mathematical certainty in the sport.

What comes after that is anyone’s guess, but with Pandora’s Box opened, it seems likely we will at least see VR headsets on the training field with augmented reality over-layering arrows and signposts, creating the “PlayStation football” that Michel Platini predicted and feared.  

All of it began with goal-line tech, and while the desire to correct missed calls goes at least as far back as linesman Tofiq Bahramov’s decision to award Geoff Hurst a goal in the 1966 World Cup final, opposition to technology remained strong prior to 2010.  

Right up until Lampard’s goal was missed, and FIFA blushed. The likes of Blatter and Platini were suspicious; worried that this gateway drug would fundamentally change how the sport was played.

For better or worse, they were right. 

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