23 December 2009 ~ Barely a week passes without some perceived controversy or other causing commentators, pundits, fans and just about everyone else calling for the introduction of video technology. "The technology exists" they cry and "other sports use it, so we must too". Callers to Radio 5 Live 606 seem convinced that the use of technology would rid the game of all refereeing errors, although they are less forthcoming as to precisely how such a system would work.
There are two key problems with applying technology to football. The first is that its proponents almost invariably fail to take into account how technology is used in other sports. For example, a rugby union television match official would have allowed William Gallas's goal against Ireland because he is only empowered to adjudicate on the act of scoring, not on anything that precedes it. A rugby league video ref would have been able to disallow the goal but would not have been able to pass any judgement on the other controversial incident that night, the clash between Shay Given and Nicolas Anelka.
In short, the evidence from other sports is that video technology is excellent for establishing absolute facts but falls down when an element of subjectivity is introduced. If we take cricket as an example: the third umpire works excellently for line decisions, such as run outs, because there is a clearly defined "in" or "out" decision to be made. However, where a level of subjectivity is involved, such as judging a catch behind the wicket, it has proven to be considerably less successful.
This is where the problem for football lies, for the laws of the game are too subjective for video to be used successfully in establishing absolute fact. The Henry handball was comparatively rare in that it was absolutely clear cut and was missed by both the referee and his assistant. The Anelka penalty incident was far more typical of the kind of decision that football referees have to make and, even after seeing the video over and over again, there is still no consensus among pundits, fans and commentators as to whether or not it should have been a penalty. The law relating to the direct free kick includes, in its first paragraph, the words "in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force". These terms are defined later in the laws, but in a way that is still highly interpretive.
An example of this is Jamie Carragher's challenge on Michael Carrick at Anfield earlier this season. Carragher played the ball but was deemed, by some, to have used excessive force (an offence which, incidentally, the laws say should result in a sending off). No matter how many replays are shown, a decision like that remains subjective and, consequently, controversial. Compare this to cricket's LBW law: in order for a batsman to be given out LBW a small number of clearly defined criteria have to be met. If any of them are not then the batsman is given not out. It is a simple law that is now being judged by all of the available technology and yet even then there are still incidents in which a consensus isn't reached.
In spite of the fact that we would all be happier if games were decided solely by the actions of the players and that phone-ins and post-match interviews weren't dominated by talk of referees' decisions rather than the game itself, video technology would, ultimately, simply serve to deflect attention from the referee to the video ref. Certainly, technology such as Hawkeye could be used to determine whether or not the ball had crossed the line, but it is highly debatable whether the level of investment required could be justified in order to clear up a handful of decisions a season. For the time being we are better off without the video and, perhaps, would be better advised to get off the referees' backs instead. The alternative, of course, is just to stick Alan Green in front of a monitor and ask him to referee the game. He knows best, after all. James Thomson