If FIFA had spent as much money on goal-line technology as it splurges on self-indulgent meetings, the United States might be going to the World Cup.
The Americans will be missing from the 2018 World Cup in Russia in part because of the lack of goal-line detection systems in CONCACAF regional qualifying. Whatever the American failings during a shocking loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday — and there were plenty — a lifeline could have been provided if Panama had not profited from a phantom goal against Costa Rica.
Panama scored an equalizer that never crossed the line. A draw against Costa Rica would still have kept the U.S. on the path to Russia but the Central American nation went on to win 2-1. The U.S. is out and has no recourse for protest against its absence from a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
While the American debate immediately centred on the litany of shortcomings during a dismal qualifying campaign, the spotlight could swiftly fall on U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati. Not only on his command of a national game in decline, but why, as a member of the ruling bodies at FIFA and CONCACAF, he is not known to have demanded goal-line technology was used in all stadiums during the final group stage.
Review comes with cost
So much is at stake when a World Cup spot worth at least $10 million US is on the line, and the reality is that $1.8 million would have enhanced the referees' decision-making in those six countries. At a cost of up to $300,000 per stadium, FIFA leaves every region to decide whether to adopt goal-line technology in qualifying. But the governing body is the ultimate organizer of the games and in charge of whittling 210 teams into 31 finalists, all of whom will benefit from technology in Russia.
Even if FIFA committed $63 million to equipping a stadium in each country with goal-line aids, that is still less than the $72 million spent over the last three years on congresses. It would also leave a legacy for domestic competitions, too, that outlast the bars, buffets and vanity entertainment funded by FIFA at gatherings of soccer leaders. Spending that would ensure soccer is fairer, with fewer errors that can prove so costly.
If FIFA had its way, the United States would be at the World Cup, being a lucrative television market and home to sponsors Budweiser, McDonald's and Visa. But that's not going to happen.
Re-examining limited use
If any good comes out of Panama's ghost goal it will be a re-examination by FIFA of the limited way goal-line technology is being spread across the world, just as the goal from Frank Lampard that was denied for England at the 2010 World Cup turned FIFA overnight into champions of technology after years of opposition.
But the focus of FIFA's leadership has already moved a step beyond goal-line technology. The priority at headquarters now is fast-tracking video replays — despite the high volume of glitches — in time for the World Cup, where the technology will be used for far more than determining whether a ball landed in the goal.
Soon, though, the use of video replay assistants will expand the divide between wealthy nations and those teams with more meagre resources.
The U.S. will rightly feel aggrieved that a refereeing mistake has contributed to its World Cup disappointment. But as a wealthy federation, the Americans need to be part of a solution.
Soccer leaders took long enough to break their long-standing resistance to technology. Now they have to ensure it is rolled out universally, especially in some of FIFA's biggest games outside of World Cups.