They Think It’s All Over. For now….

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David Wild looks at the controversies of goal line technology and its impending introduction to English football…

It has never been the wont of Football to keep up with the ceaseless march of technology. A game that often defines itself by its simplicity, emotion and unpredictability is traditionally thought of as being set in its ways, resistant to change, stubborn.

But is football correct to resist the changes that technology brings? What would the effects of referral systems have on football’s dynamic and on the authority of it’s officials? While we can see the obvious benefits of Hawk Eye and video replay referrals in other sports is football too unique in its make up to embrace such systems?

The recent decision to introduce Hawk Eye technology in the Premier League as of the 2013/14 season is remarkable because it has happened at all. The amount of time it has taken for football to adapt a system successfully used in cricket and tennis for the last five years is baffling to many who claim it is impossible to doubt the potential of technology in clarifying official’s decisions.

It is a strange thought, that a game so steeped in interactive tactics boards, instant slow motion replays and pro zone statistical analysis would rather pay two extra officials to stand behind a goal than begin to place too much value in a video referral. Gary Neville can zoom in on any incident he likes, slow down the play and view events from several potential angles, the referee is not so lucky.

Hawk Eye has been brought in to answer the complaints that follow in the wake of incidents such as Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in the Fifa World Cup 2010 . It answers the rallying calls of the masses for fairness and justice in football and the claims that these virtues can only truly come from the accuracy of an electronic eye. Following its resounding success in tennis and cricket it would seem only sensible to utilise such irrefutable evidence in football.

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The obvious benefit is that teams, at last, will be able to accurately challenge whether a ball has crossed the goal line or not. We will, for richer or poorer, never have the likes of World Cup 1966 again. Like so many things in the world, we will have lost the shrouded and tantalising uncertainty and seen it replaced with hard and indisputable confirmation of fact; perhaps less mysterious but undeniably more justified.

Yet consider another news story from April and we can see a less discussed future pathway for football regulations. In March of this year St. Mirren drew 1-1 with Celtic in a relatively unassuming game. During the match Esmael Goncalves was judged to have been tripped by Emilio Izaguirre and Bobby Madden gave the foul.

Retrospective television replays after the game however judged Goncalves to have won this decision by simulation; he was banned for two games. The referee’s decision was appealed and the player given retrospective punishment by a regulatory body for his misdemeanour.

The English FA is considering implementing similar plans in the near future. Darren Bailey, director of the FA’s Governance and Regulation body stated that:

“What we would like to see is collectively the game as a whole taking responsibility for getting rid of that [simulation]… But if it gets to the stage where it is not [dealt with] we have made it fairly clear we will need to consider a regulatory intervention, and that will have to be at a fairly high level.”

This is an interesting approach to the preservation of football’s integrity. Such retrospective punishment has the real potential to once and for all stamp out the menace of diving. Players would no longer be able to simulate a foul without fear of eventual censure even if the referee was fooled at the time and gave a wrongful free kick.

We would also see more severe punishments for those bringing the game into disrepute such as David Luiz, who recently exhibited a grin of Cheshire cat proportions whilst writhing on the floor against Manchester United. But combine this kind of revelation with Hawk Eye’s potential for referral and such an introduction to retrospective punishment becomes the key to Pandora’s Box.

If football adopts Hawkeye it will surely be difficult to resist its use in appealing the decisions of the official in the same manner as in other sports. Initially Hawkeye’s footballing guise has been designed primarily to determine whether the ball has crossed the line for a goal.

However it seems an inevitable by-product of the system’s adoption that Hawk Eye will give football clubs a sniff of extra agency in a game’s outcome; the potential for clubs to appeal other decisions such as offside calls, possible simulation and more or less any other refereeing decision.

In theory this is a good thing. Football will become more accurate, decisions will be correct and verified by corroborative evidence and justice will be served. But what is good in theory rarely transfers perfectly into practice. There are several potential pitfalls of such a system that can broadly be separated into two sections: Those affecting the referee and his authority and those affecting the game’s dynamic itself.

In terms of the dynamic of the game the delay is the important factor. We can have an instant replay ready to check within around 90 seconds. Consider however this delay’s effect on football’s unique fluidity. Sports such as cricket, tennis or even rugby which implement the use of video replays are much more conducive to referral systems because of the natural breaks in play. Football is particularly different in requiring such a high level of fluidity. A football match where a ball spends a lot of time out of play for example is uniquely excruciating.

So then to implement a system whereby a club manager was given three chances to challenge a referree’s decision and stop play as a result opens the game up to a particular new kind of abuse. Not only would crowds be less enamoured with a game which enabled regular 90 second breaks for offside calls and late tackles but it is inevitable that teams would use this system to a tactical advantage.

Consider a team is beginning to gain a counter attacking ascendancy, battering down their opponents door to equalise when 1-0 behind.  Then consider the anti football response made possible by three appeals in quick succession by the team in a winning position in order to ‘take the sting’ out of their opponents. Gamesmanship, delays in and destruction of the rhythm of the game are something football’s governing bodies must be acutely aware of.

Furthermore how long would it be before a landmark case occurred, whereby a result was definitively changed post match by such a decision? When a goal given in game was removed post match by appeal? We would be destroying the structure and finite qualities of the game if we were to give the freedom of referral to all clubs and for all decisions. It would become an intransigent nightmare.

There is a separate argument that posits that removing the element of controversy that comes from a wrong decision will make the game poorer; it will lack its original excitement and potential for debate. I dispute this claim as I believe that it implies that football’s rules are piecemeal; to be picked and chosen when you wish to apply them.

For example when Bradford’s goalkeeper was sent off in this season’s League Cup final a sizeable majority called for him to be left on the pitch because it was the ‘sporting’ thing to do rather than the correct thing. I find it difficult to accept that a fairer game will be a poorer game and believe this to be a poor and overly conservative excuse. Defining sporting rules should not be adapted to circumstance and crowd demand; context is immaterial.

A secondary consequence of any such referral system as that discussed is the effect on the game’s referees. Football referees do not enjoy the exalted status of the umpire. When viewed alongside his rugby equivalent, the respect that a football referee receives is comparable to that given to Manuel by Basil Fawlty.

You can only imagine then the collapse in a referee’s authority when up to six of his major decisions (if hypothesising a system with three challenge calls for each side per game) are undermined and questioned by review in a match. Managers’ occasional post match complaints concerning officials would be transformed into an in game crucifixion.

Granted with this particular claim there is a difficulty in acquiring much information on how such a retrospective system would affect the current rating parameters for referees. Would missing something and subsequently the governing body having to take effect count as a black mark on the referee’s record? Would the difficulty of the decision be taken into a relative and fair account in any scoring system?

It is difficult to find much definite information on the rating systems for referees within public access. The FA laws of the game states that referee assessors are appointed to each game. Furthermore in non-league football both managers score the referee from 1-100 so you can possibly infer that a similar system is in place in league football. Little else is easily deducible without insider knowledge.

The public don’t know how referees are scored and how potential rules would make their job much more difficult. Retrospective referral systems may lead to referees making spurious decisions on a hunch when not 100% certain  because of a fear of being censured for not making a call; a move that could ruin both a referees confidence and authority if it begins to undermine and deteriorate his decision making.

While there are obvious positives to Hawkeye and the retrospective punishment of players involved in simulation the FA must be extremely thoughtful in their implementation of new technology into the game and particularly rigorous in conceiving well planned regulatory structures.

Luckily the FA seem aware of the potential issues. David Bailey stated that:

“ We would have to work with Fifa to make sure that the parameters were understood and that we don’t create the impression that you can reopen everything, because once the Pandora’s box is open you can have complications. We want to keep football as simple as possible and not create litigation of decisions on Monday morning which, while potentially addressing one or two injustices in the season, lays the game open to many wider and darker implications.”

Judging by Bailey’s comments he is aware that football would be best served by the stamping out of acts such as simulation by means of integrity rather than enforcement. The potential pitfalls and abuse that retrospective punishment could bring about are, quite rightfully, of paramount importance in officials such as Bailey’s mind. An example of the much maligned FA showing that they are indeed capable of foresight.

Technology is doubtlessly, if belatedly going to improve the game significantly. Acute accuracy can only improve standards of fair play and sportsmanship in the long term. However it is making certain that these rules are effectively and sensibly implemented that is the largest challenge facing the FA’s board. We can only hope that the game’s defining principles and values are not just preserved but improved in the face of the technological age.

@CarefulPlane; @The_False_Nine

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About David Wild

Your resident 'man on the sofa' David Wild has often been referred to as 'one of our writers' and 'a nice young man'. A keen analyst of both trivial, humourous and tactical aspects of the beautiful game, David has honed those skills of argument and insight that only the bosom of Boundary Park, mispent time in the pub and half a philosophy degree can bestow upon a man. An English and Philosophy Graduate of Leeds University 2012, David tweets, almost daily, nonsensical ramblings here

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