In the days when there were only three UK television channels, science programmes often sought to predict what technological innovations might be commonplace by the start of the 21st century. There would be commercial flights to the moon, robots would do domestic chores in suburban homes and technology would be used for decisions in football matches. The first two seem as far off as ever but finally, the third, long a favourite hobby horse of that emperor of pundits, Jimmy Hill, is going to happen.
The Carling Cup final at the end of February is set to see the first use of technology to decide whether the ball has crossed the line. FIFA have approved the implanting of a microchip in the ball and sensors on the goalline, a system designed by a former referee from central Italy who was beaten up during a pitch invasion after wrongly disallowing a goal. This is a major step up from the simple advances in communications (a buzzer that alerts the ref when an assistant’s flag is raise) that have gone before.
This announcement by Sepp Blatter preceded the horrendous error made by the assistant referee at Man Utd v Spurs match, in failing to spot that the ball dropped by Roy Carroll had gone several feet over the line before being palmed away. This was demonstrated conclusively by video evidence, though had the linesman concentrated on watching rather than running back into position that may not have been needed. As a result of such incidents, the voices calling for aids for more competent decision-making become ever more shrill. And there is the danger that other innovations will be hard to resist.
However, the Football Association and FIFA still seem set against the use of video replays to decide controversial incidents. Sepp himself dismisses all such talk with what appears to be his favourite one-liner, that football should be “a sport played for and by humans”. And – though it is on our list of resolutions to make sure it doesn’t happen again – we broadly agree with him.
Before the Carroll incident, a row over a handball not given dominated the media coverage of the new year’s early games, with Jamie Carragher especially enraged about referee Mike Riley’s failure to award a penalty for handball in Chelsea’s win at Anfield. But – however much anyone might disagree with his verdict – the fact is that Riley did see that incident and, in his opinion, Tiago’s handball was not intentional, so not an offence. Just as Liverpool (perhaps with more support) would argue that Carragher’s own “offence” two days later at Norwich was one of those situations where short of amputation, what exactly was he supposed to do with his arms?
These matters will always come down to opinion – and what credibility would any referee have with any decision if he was once overruled by a colleague in the stands? The judgment would have to be made by the man in the middle, regularly running to pitchside monitors to re-examine all the small but potentially crucial decisions within a game. There is no difference between a team scoring from an incorrectly awarded penalty, or free-kick, or corner, or throw-in. While replays would perhaps demonstrate the facts in an offside case, the referee would still have to look at the replay, to decide is someone was interfering with play.
It is also worth remembering that from time to time you can be sure that the cameras would get things wrong. At the 1998 World Cup, Norway advanced from the group stage at the expense of Morocco, thanks to a late and controversial winning penalty awarded against Brazil. None of the host broadcasters’ cameras showed anything untoward and for a couple of days American referee Esse Baharmast was subject to vilification. And then, some footage shot by a documentary team from a different angle turned up, showing Baharmast had been right all along.
Football would be a fairer game if officials made fewer mistakes, but it would be a lot harder to watch once technology became a crutch rather than an aid, leading to endless delays and, rather than an absence of rows, new ones. More power, or at least self-importance, would go to the broadcasters. Still, a faultless system that determines if a ball has crossed the line is settling a question of fact and not something to get alarmed about – unless you’re the referee, who’ll have to put up hearing a shrill beep, beep, beep.
From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month