6 March ~ Last time it was the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales. There, in March 2011, the drawn-out saga of GLT (Goal Line Technology) was the main item on the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) agenda, though FIFA president Sepp Blatter was bushwhacked by journalists keen to pin him down on the nitty-gritty of his forthcoming re-election campaign, mired as it was in waves of corruption revelations. Safely re-elected in June 2011, and promising reform to core FIFA practices and processes, Blatter breezed into the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey at the beginning of March, the up-market venue the choice of the Football Association as host to the 126th annual general meeting of the IFAB.
FIFA’s brief on the goal-line technology question describes the IFAB as “made up of representatives” of the four national football associations of the UK – the Football Association (England), the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales, and the Irish Football Association (Northern Ireland) – “as well as FIFA”. The IFAB’s prime responsibility is as guardian of the laws of the game. There are eight voting slots – four for the UK bodies and four for FIFA – and the IFAB frequently votes according to blocks of interest. But the UK associations are not automatically on each other’s side.
In the Ascot Bar on the morning of the IFAB AGM, six grey-suited, white-haired Welshman were huddled in animated discussion. The most vociferous of these veteran football administrators was adamant that the Welsh delegation should follow its instincts and long-held principles. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’ve got now… it comes up all the time. We’re not happy with it. If all we’ve got to do is agree with other countries we might as well not come here.”
Happy or not, such delegations routinely turn up for the eight-vote AGM and the second business meeting that the IFAB routinely has each year. And it’s not surprising that they do. At Pennyhill, the Ascot Bar has a Connoisseurs Club that offers a range of champagnes from Perrier Jouet Grand Brut at £54 to £595 for a 1995 Cristal Roederer Rosé. The meeting room names echo British privilege: Balmoral, Blenheim, Sandringham, Windsor. The social agenda sandwiches the meetings nicely, and the British associations certainly don’t want any big run-in with FIFA that might jeopardise the autonomy and independence of their “national” status. The IFAB predated the birth of FIFA in 1904 by 16 years, and as long as no boat is rocked too much, the reciprocal interests of FIFA and the four British associations sustain the collusive collaboration.
“I would die,” Blatter stated on the eve of the meeting, as he was doorstepped by Sky News, were there to be any repeat of the Frank Lampard goal-that-never-was at the 2010 World Cup. He also reaffirmed his determination to carry the IFAB with him on the issue. He didn’t get to the Pennyhill press conference himself, but briefed his general secretary Jerôme Valcke to transmit FIFA’s positive support for GLT, along with representatives of the UK associations.
The FA’s Alex Horne, as host, summarised the outcome of the main items on the IFAB agenda. GLT would enter its second phase of testing – it will be “tested to destruction”, Horne melodramatically added, with two companies (Hawk-eye, and GoalRef) left from an initial eight contenders; unlimited numbers of substitutes would be allowed for “amateur players” of all ages in “recreational football”, to boost participation; and, after a highly praised presentation by FIFA executive committee member Prince Ali of Jordan, the hijab would be permitted in women’s football, again boosting participation.
GLT dominated the agenda, though, and Valcke acknowledged that FIFA itself could introduce it, for its own competitions, as early as the 2012 Club World Cup in December. It was left to national associations to see if they, their clubs and Leagues would be able to afford it, and to decide on when it might be implemented. The GLT must be restricted to goal decisions, must be as accurate as technologically possible, must confirm the “goal or not” question within one second, and communicate this decision to the match officials only. It would be what Alex Horne whimsically called a “private moment” for the referee.
Asked whether the poorer UK associations and Leagues of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland would be able to afford installation, the chief executives of those associations conceded that they would adopt a wait-and-see strategy, based upon the declining costs of established technologies, and increased competition in the GLT market that could bring in alternative, approved providers and licence holders. The elite of world football would get the benefits first; the poorer the football culture, the longer the old arguments will be destined to go on.
But this didn’t undermine the harmonious voices of the IFAB spokesmen. So when it came to the press conference the Welsh rebellion looked muted. No dissenting voices or views were reported from the IFAB meeting. The GLT experiment will be continued to a promised resolution, at a special meeting of the IFAB in Ukraine’s capital Kiev on July 2 that no doubt the reluctant Welshmen will make room and time to turn up to, the day after the final of the Euros that they in all probability will dutifully have attended. Alan Tomlinson