The demands for video replays to help referees grow ever more hysterical (especially when Blackburn or Bolton play). But Barney Ronay has seen more than enough already
In the last month calls for the use of video refereeing technology have become, if not deafening, then at least annoyingly insistent. After Blackburn’s 1-1 draw with Spurs in the Premiership, Mark Hughes demanded the introduction of technology “sooner rather than later”, presumably envisaging a dead-eyed über-ref hunched over his vast bank of screens somewhere in the bowels of Ewood Park. “When huge decisions at the top level have an impact on teams then something has to be done,” Hughes harrumphed, which will no doubt come as a great comfort to whichever top-level teams involved in huge decisions the Blackburn manager has in mind.
The weekly agitation in favour of a technological deus ex machina tends to follow a familiar pattern. Unlucky Team loses a closely fought game or the lead. Wronged Manager blames a crucial officiating injustice: “Referee X never gives us anything and I’ll probably be fined for saying that now.” Cue excitable debate about the clear case for someone to do something about all this, fuelled by an extended follow-up moan from Wronged Manager. Put the whole thing on hold for three days. Then off we go again the following Saturday, when Wronged Team benefits from an iffy penalty shout against Even Angrier XI, on whose behalf Furious Assistant Coach takes up the cudgels.
Video refereeing is a bad idea on many levels. First, there’s no evidence it actually works. Rugby league uses a video ref to rule on dubious scores. This has simply shifted the focus of the debate. In the recent Tri‑Nations Series, Great Britain had two tries disallowed against Australia after referral to the man in the stands, both of which decisions could have gone either way even after ten minutes of super slow-mo replays from 16 different angles. Fast forward five years and you can already hear Graeme Souness talking to Garth Crooks about never getting any breaks from the ninth official in the TV replay gantry and isn’t it about time we replaced him with a super-powered robot brain equipped with infra-red thermal vision and a really sinister voice.
Even with cameras involved, somebody, somewhere will always have to make a decision, about which someone else can then feel aggrieved. Exactly which bits of the game are we going to refer to video? In which directions are we going to point our necessarily limited number of lenses? Under FIFA tests even cameras in the goalmouth have proved ineffective as a means of telling with 100 per cent certainty whether a ball has actually crossed the line. Similarly, the experiment with a microchip inside the ball at the 2005 World Under-17 Championship in Peru produced some farcical results: shots over the bar that landed on the net were registered as goals, there was a serious time lag before any information reached the ref and the presence of more than one ball on the field crashed the entire system. Look at it for long enough and the whole issue of technology in refereeing is, at the current state of the art, a genuine non-starter.
So why is this red herring constantly trumpeted as “inevitable”? Perhaps unsurprisingly, television has much to do with it. The media, it seems, are no longer happy just to report on the game: they want to be a player too. We are a real part of this, the cameras are saying. With video refereeing TV companies would become a still more intrinsic aspect of the spectacle of professional football, not just setting the agenda of how and when you watch it, but even helping to decide the result.
Ushering this process along are a gaggle of Premiership managers using the debate not just to create a smokescreen for poor results, but also as a means to put undue pressure on referees. Sam Allardyce has a member of his staff in the stands at the Reebok monitoring a small-screen instant replay, allowing him to harangue the referee with real-time video hindsight while a game is actually in progress.
In the middle of all this, the experience of actually being at a match looks set to take yet another beating. Instant replays are for the televised spectator. The real-life football crowd plays no part; yet again its status is eroded, this time to something along the lines of paying extras at a TV show. Perhaps most glaringly of all, video refereeing could only ever be used in the very top tier. For the first time in 140 years of professional football, there would be a basic stratification of how the game takes place, fundamental differences between how the game exists in the Premiership and at the levels below.
To FIFA’s credit, this principle has been cited as one of their reasons for resisting, so far, the introduction of new technology. The likelihood is that football’s governing body are trying simply to protect their own status as agenda-setting superpower. In reality the notion that the refereeing of a match should be essentially the same any level has already been all but abandoned with the presence at the top end of a walkie‑talkie‑toting fourth and fifth official referee. There is even a suggestion that video technology has already been used via this route. A French body is currently suing FIFA in an attempt to get Zinedine Zidane’s red card at the World Cup final overturned, after claims that the fourth official was only made aware of his assault on Marco Materazzi by TV replays at pitchside.
Above all, there is something thick-headedly literal about calls for video refereeing. Managers are fond of reminding us how much is “at stake” these days, as though a quest for an unattainable level of refereeing certainty is the only way to preserve the game, even to the detriment of everything else connected with going to watch a football match. Like all sports, football takes its shape and form from the degree by which it strays from perfection. Without the random elements it simply wouldn’t exist. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a group of super-intelligent beings build a computer to calculate the meaning of life. Shortly after switching it on the super-intelligent beings are interrupted by a group of protesters who shout: “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.” Quite right, too: it wouldn’t be football any other way.
From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month