Technological breakthrough

Fewer mistakes or free-flowing football? Choosing the lesser of two evils is the problem

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

Comments (6)
Comment by SoccerLimey 2011-11-29 18:11:10

I think the whole argument about how technology will somehow slow the whole game down is a lot of old rubbish spouted forth by people who aren't really looking at this whole problem with any type of common sense. Take the Man United vs Newcastle game on Saturday. How long did it eventually take for the referee and his assistant to come up with the WRONG answer ? They could have easily had the 4th ref, who incidentally should be up in a booth anyway communicating with ref and not just standing on the sidelines taking abuse from fans and managers and holding up extra time minutes, decide the CORRECT answer in half the time. What a joke that is.

You cannot equate this with the NFL video replays. American Football is littered with time-outs and is part of the game so reviews don't harm the game at all. Tennis does it and it's super fast. Rugby Union does it and it's timely and accurate in a sport where there are a lot more hindrances to seeing the ball clearly than in soccer.

Let's talk some sense here people. Our sport depends upon it.

Comment by Karlheinz Riedle 2011-11-29 21:08:19

I disagree – Personally I feel that the errors and mistakes referees and assistants may make add to part of the spirit of the game.

I dunno which team you support, but chances are a bad decision has gone in your favour and you've relished it in a guilty sense. The thing is, that these kinds of errors are parts of the legend of the game and add a new dimension of excitement.

I myself am a referee and realise that no matter what decision, with whatever technology, there will always be someone complaining. IF it came in next season you can bet Sir Alex will be f-ing and blinding about the technology being "on the blink"

PLus maybe we should all retain the essential humanity of the game? The fact that the game should not be mechanised and dumbed down to the point of being "right" all the time. It's what makes the game FUN.

P.S. I'm assuming (in a horrible, sweeping way) that you're an England fan – If we'd had microchip technology in 1966, then perhaps it wouldn't be "40 years of hurt", but far, far longer.

Comment by ingoldale 2011-11-30 12:26:48

Also, it is important to remember that in football the wording before each rule concerning fouls states "in the opinion of the referee". The only thing that is black and white in football is whether or not the ball has fully crossed the line (provided you have an adequate view, currently) and so could be the only thing used to decide with technology provided the information came instantly. You can't stop play because defence can turn to attack in seconds in football – just look at Man City's goal v Arsenal in the League Cup last night. In all other sports where technology is used, the game is already dead no matter what the outcome of the decision and advocates of pro technology football regularly fail to omit this from their musings. Football is a game of opinions as we often say in England – opinion, the discussion is also what makes our sport great.

Comment by reddybrek 2011-11-30 12:45:57

Surely we only need to look at how technology has eradicated controversy and gamesmanship in tennis?

This model could easily be applied to football. Each team gets 3 challenges to a ref decision over the course of a game. Simple.

Of course there will stil be a tiny minority of decisions that will be on a knife edge but the glaringly appawling decisions would a thing of the past along with simulation and goal line calls.

Win win situation surely? Unless you like a football culture where diving is considered very clever indeed eh Karlheinz? 😉

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-11-30 16:42:12

I must confess, I've never actually seen a trial of any technology-based refereeing aids in football. In fact, come to think of it, I'm not even sure what's being proposed, or what's available. Are we talking about something like "Hawkeye" for confirming whether a ball has crossed a line? Are we talking about video playbacks for reviewing possible fouls, dives, offsides, dodgy Blackburn corners etc? Are we talking about both?

My gut feeling is that technology could help referees get more of the important decisions right, in a practical and timely manner. But as I've never seen any of it in action, I can't say for certain can I? Maybe the football authorities should try the various options out first, as a controlled experiment, to establish whether or not they actually work, and whether or not they ruin the flow of the game. Until that happens, I'll reserve judgement. I can't make a decision either way. I can't even offer an opinion. At the moment, as things stand, all I have is a gut feeling.

(Which means, basically, that Harry Callahan was wrong. Opinions are NOT like assholes – everyone HASN'T got one. Not when it comes to the use of video technology in football, anyway.)

Comment by SoccerLimey 2011-11-30 18:00:59

@Karlheinz Riedle I find your reasoning totally confusing and irrational. The feeling that the laws are interpreted as "in the opinion of the referee" is exactly what is wrong. You of all people, as a referee, should know the abuse that you incur from players and fans alike when you make a blatantly bad call. The match should not be decided by an error by the officials. I'm sorry – it shouldn't.

I think I would be more accepting of the match being decided solely by officials if I thought that their main focus is making the right decision. It's not. If it was, you would see the 4th man speaking to the ref if he made a bad decision. It doesn't happen. Let's face it. Referees don't like to be overruled and therein lies the crux of the issue.

Too much is at stake these days to just diss this off as "in the opinion of the referee". That's bullshit