Thursday 17 September ~
Tonight's Europa League matches have generated more media interest than is usually given to Europe's secondary club competition but it has nothing to do with the new league format and silly name change. The games will be watched with keen interest because they will involve two extra officials stationed behind the goals. The scheme has been tried out in Under-19 matches and if successful will be introduced in all European leagues. UEFA president Michel Platini's enthusiasm for the idea suggests that he has already decided that it will be a success.
The goal-line gawpers will communicate by radio link but the referee will still have to decide whether to act on their advice. In a sense UEFA's plan is a refinement of a process that has been enacted at most professional football matches for more than a century. There are already several hundred experts behind each goal who have clear views of every incident which they are quite prepared to communicate. It's likely that some of their attention will now be turned towards the man standing in front of them, and in some cases obscuring their view, rather than the man on the pitch with the whistle.
Platini seems to believe that the presence of extra officials will discourage simulation, the blight on the modern game that seems to produce anguished headlines on an almost daily basis. The depth of UEFA's concern about this issue was demonstrated when they rushed to ban Eduardo for diving to win a penalty in a Champions League qualifier – before rescinding the punishment after an appeal. Wise heads prevailed in the Eduardo case because the precedent set would have led to chaos. Every penalty awarded would be subject to even more minute scrutiny than it currently receives, with daily demands for players to be fined, banned, tagged and, eventually, tarred and feathered, while referees would be thoroughly undermined by having major decisions reassessed.
Platini has even used referees' supposed fallability to justify the use of extra officials, saying: "For years players have cheated because the referees were not of good enough quality... with the extra officials close by they will take the right decisions." Referees are excoriated now because, as aggrieved managers never tire of pointing out, mistakes cost money. The loss of income that results from a wrong decision hasn't yet been represented as an algebraic formula but teams of statisticians are working towards it in thinktanks funded by the wealthiest European clubs. In the meantime there seems little point in entertaining the hope that football administrators will one day be of "good enough quality" to not want to fiddle about with the laws for the benefit of the privileged few.