Why football needs video referrals

Written by  //  April 14, 2012  //  Sport  //  Comments Off

Sixty-one minutes had elapsed. Wigan Athletic, looking to climb out of the relegation zone of the Barclays Premier League for the first time in four months, was holding on resolutely against Chelsea. And then came an error of judgment. Not from any of Wigan’s players, but from assistant referee, Dave Bryan. Chelsea’s Serbian international Branislav Ivanovic was yards offside when he received the ball in the box before he slotted it into the net. But Bryan allowed the goal to stand and Chelsea went on to win the game 2-1. The result could well cost Wigan a place in the Premier League, and consequently millions of dollars in revenue.

The very next day, Manchester United was at home to Queens Park Rangers — another relegation threatened club. A few minutes into the game, Ashley Young showcased the dexterity of an ace diver, and fell down under the slightest of contacts from Rangers defender, Shaun Derry. Referee, Lee Mason, almost immediately blew the whistle, awarded a penalty to United and accorded a red card to Derry (apparently he denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity). Wayne Rooney knocked away the resultant spot-kick, and United went on to win the game 2-0. Instant replays showed that not only did Young dive to win the penalty; he was also a good yard offside when Rooney played the through-ball. It was a farcical decision that would have taken a few seconds to correct, had the referee been given the benefit of a video-replay.

These are but only two instances in a series of refereeing follies that have impacted football games in Europe this season. A solitary error — whether it is a failure to spot a handball in the penalty box or a failure to see the ball cross the goal-line — can directly affect the final result of a match, and therefore even a team’s entire season. While efforts are being made to introduce goal-line technology, there has been little debate on the larger use of video referrals to correct palpable refereeing errors.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) — the sport’s law making authority — is expected to announce the incorporation of goal-line technology into football’s rulebooks in time for next season. FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, once vehemently opposed to such methods, recently said in a statement: “We don’t want a repeat of last World Cup … I think I can convince the International Football Association Board that we must go forward with technology.” He was referring to Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the round of 16 of the World Cup in South Africa against Germany. As you may well remember, England was trailing 1-2 when Lampard’s strike ricocheted off the crossbar and crossed the goal-line, only for the officials to rule that it didn’t. Germany won the game 4-1, and qualified for the quarterfinal.

But the goal line technology, which Blatter now wants in place, at least in time for the next World Cup in 2014, sees opposition from several important stakeholders. Michel Platini, the former French center forward, and president of UEFA — the administrative body governing football in Europe — has been steadfast in his disapproval of such equipment. He believes the use of an additional official behind each of the goal-lines negates the need for technology. Yet, even in European games in which such additional referees have been experimented with, though no direct goal-line controversies may have arisen, questionable decisions continue to mount. In the first-leg of its quarterfinal against AC Milan, Barcelona was denied a clear penalty when Alexis Sanchez was brought down in the box. The additional official was only a few yards from the action, but play continued, and the game ended scoreless. Even if goal-line technology were in place, it wouldn’t have remedied errors of that ilk, which are just as influential in determining the result of a game.

Refereeing mistakes have existed for as long as the sport of football has existed. But with the improvement in television broadcast, the slipups are more obvious than ever before. In almost every other major sport, video referrals are in place in some form or the other. In America’s National Football League, head coaches are allowed two challenges per half to question on-field decisions. While the NFL incorporated these rules as early as in 1999, football’s governing authorities cannot be bothered to even consider the implementation of such challenges. Had the referee been given 60 seconds to examine video evidence of Ivanovic’s goal against Wigan, the decision would almost surely have been overturned, and the game would have continued goalless.

The arguments against the incorporation of technology in football are primarily twofold: that human errors are part of the game’s attraction, and that football is a fluid game without natural breaks, and introducing video referrals will slow it down. Neither argument passes muster. Ask any fan of the game, and they will tell you that there is nothing more infuriating than the outcome of a contest being determined by a referee’s mistake. Manchester United would have perhaps beaten QPR even without the aid of Mason’s decision; but it unmistakably sullied the result.

Claiming that the game’s fluidity will be threatened by video referrals is just as ludicrous — one one only needs to look at the time wasted in treating on-field injuries. A total of ten minutes to review decisions in a match will by no means affect the sport’s pace and movement. Wouldn’t you rather see a few seconds being taken to inspect a video instead of the final result being affected by an obvious refereeing error?

Admittedly, the nitty-gritties of how to implement video referrals need to be worked out. Should team managers be given the option to review two decisions every half, or should the referee suo moto refer decisions that he believes merits a second look? The former choice, perhaps, provides the more balanced solution in terms of helping eliminate obvious error, while ensuring that the flow of a game is not unduly affected. As it stands, in shunning any talk of a referral system, as an option to cut down on officiating errors, football has fallen well behind the times.

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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