Technology In Football

Technology In Football

By on Apr 13, 2010 in Latest, Opinion | 14 comments

It rather seems as if every time there is a refereeing decision that costs a team a point or two, the usual suspects in the media start stating the case for all manner of whizzy gizmos to make sure that such a travesty of justice never occurs again. FIFA, however, are against the introduction of such technology and Rob Freeman has similar reservations.

With the recent decisions in the FA Cup semi-finals over the weekend, the media once again is full of calls for the use of technology in football, and seemingly never ending complaints about Sepp Blatter and FIFA’s refusal to “embrace” it. But for once, the man in charge of the game is right. The use of goal line technology and instant replays should be resisted at all costs. It’s unnecessary, it’s impractical and it benefits the media a lot more than the fans and the game.

For a start, there’s the whole issue of cost. Having already brought innovations into tennis and cricket, Hawk-Eye have in recent years have trialled goal line technology at Craven Cottage and Reading’s Hogwood Park training ground. They claim that they can provide accuracy to within 5mm and within half a second, but there have been suggestions that it would cost half a million pounds to implement the system for each club. With the current financial climate within football, how many clubs would be able to justify that outlay? Normally, you would be able to say that the Premier League clubs could afford it – but in a season where very few bills have been paid, you could make a case that Portsmouth could not afford it. Even in the Championship, there are clubs that don’t make that sort of outlay on transfer fees, so it’s only likely to be used in the top flight. Which brings us to the next issue – that of consistency.

Every team needs to be treated the same at every level, so if the 20 Premier League clubs have Hawk-Eye, or another technology installed, what happens when one of them is drawn away to a non-Premier League side in one of the cups? In this seasons FA Cup Quarter Finals, three of the home clubs were from the top flight (Chelsea, Fulham and Portsmouth), and one was not (Reading). Does the game at the Hawk-Eyeless Madejski get treated differently from the others? Do you have a situation where the first game has Hawk-Eye, buy the replay does not, or vice versa? Outside of England, what happens in a Champions League qualifier if a rich nation’s club plays a poor nation’s club in a qualifier? And then comes the World Cup – FIFA treat every World Cup Qualifier the same, whether it is Timor-Leste v Hong Kong in a pre-group knockout, or France v the Republic of Ireland in a winner take all playoff. The French Football Federation can easily afford to have the Stade de France kitted up, but do the Surinamese FA have to concede home advantage because they cannot afford it, but their Costa Rican opponents can? Talking of World Cup Qualifiers, that brings us to another issue – it’s not just goal line technology that’s being discussed.

The most contentious decision of recent times was the failure of the Swedish officials to spot Thierry Henry’s handball in their Playoff, costing Giovanni Trappatoni’s men the chance to take part in a penalty shootout, with more calls for TV officials and instant replays. But only for major decisions of course – but what makes an major decision? In the case of that incident in Saint-Denis, a goal was scored two to three seconds later, so that’s easy to pull back, penalty decisions and professional foul too. Well, just as long as the ball goes out of play straight away and the other side don’t break away and score of course – which we’ve all seen happen. What about an incorrectly awarded corner that’s subsequently scored? Or a goal kick that should have been a corner, where the attacking team don’t get a chance to score. A throw in ten yards from the halfway line isn’t a major decision is it? What if Rory Delap then takes the throw? What if a wrongly given throw-in, leads to a wrongly given penalty? Can you only review the second decision? And that’s a problem. You only know if a decision is major in hindsight. It has been suggested that managers could be given challenges, just like the players get in tennis, but as football is lower scoring and flows a lot more than tennis, it’s a lot more open to abuse (For example, you’re winning in the last minute, and the opposition break – challenge!) as a whole new means of gamesmanship. But even letting it reach that stage is opening the floodgates, because once the authorities cave in to the media and managers on one part of technology, they’re going to carry on demanding until every decision is made by a man in the stands. But that brings with it another problem, because not every decision is seen.

In the recent game between Ipswich Town and Scunthorpe United, each player had a man sent off for ‘serious foul play’. Town’s Damien Delaney was red carded for a trip, then later United’s Byrne was dismissed for an alleged elbow. Both clubs felt aggrieved, and both appealed. Delaney’s card was rescinded because while his trip was clearly cynical, it wasn’t serious foul play, but Byrne’s appeal was dropped – because of a lack of video evidence, because the cameras missed it. Sky and their friends are forever telling us that “the cameras are already there”, but they are not. And that’s another issue.

Love Sky or loathe Sky, their coverage of live games is unparalleled, multiple angles from various places in the ground, and cameramen on the ground. There are usually three on the near side, one behind each goal, and one on the far side (the rarely used ‘reverse angle’) – but that depends on the layout of the ground, both inside and out. Decisions on the near side are more likely to be picked up that the far side, because of the numbers of cameras. A cameraman behind the goal may position himself near one post to get a decision, but if a handball happens the other side of the area, and the camera does not have a good enough view – what happens to the video technology then? Is that a case of relying on the referee, and if it’s wrong it’s tough? Video technology would need more cameras on the far side, and a camera each side of the goal, at each goal. And with that, you need more cameramen, so that you can relay each decision to the official in the stand. And of course, the number of cameras and the quality of facilities change depending on whether a game is live on Sky, being relayed back to their studio for Jeff Stelling and Gaby Logan’s Failed Managers Panels or just being recorded for later use on Football First and Match of the Day. And that brings yet another issue – the issue of logistics.

If you’ve ever attended a Premier League Live Sky or terrestrial game, there are cranes and trucks in order to produce everything, so that it can be relayed back to the team sitting in an executive box in the main stand. For the top flight games that aren’t being shown live, there are fewer cameras, fewer cameramen, fewer cranes, and fewer trucks – but then, if you are needing all this equipment for each game, then you might as well get the clubs to buy and store the equipment and create a brand new VT suite, and employ the cameramen and the directors. But where will all this technology and the people needed to use it come from? In fact, I daresay Sky would be happy to sell the clubs the equipment that they wouldn’t need anymore. There’s probably a club or two that would be happy to buy the trucks and the cranes and the rest of the equipment that travels the country. That brings the same questions in terms of Hawk-Eye when it comes to the cup competitions again – after all, as Bristol City recently proved in their live BBC game against West Bromwich Albion proved, some Championship clubs don’t have the room to accommodate a TV presenting team (Logan and Leroy Rosenior presented the show by the corner flag underneath a parasol), let alone a TV official in a VT room.

But enough about the media – how would it affect the match-going fan? Unlike other sports that use video technology, Football is a fast-flowing fluent game. Crowds get restless when a player goes down for an injury, but they’re few and far between, and excluding time that referees add on for goal celebrations and substitutions (which rarely feel like stoppages), it’s rare that you have more than four minutes of stoppages a game. Now, considering that the FA have banned contentious decisions from being replayed on big screens at games, and that every decision referred to a TV official would be by nature contentious (and that if Rugby League is any barometer, any remotely contentious decision would be deferred), the crowd will spend 2-3 minutes at a time twiddling their thumbs, as they’re the only ones not allowed to see the event, while it gets replayed at home continuously, as long as the game’s live of course. And if it is live, how long would you give it before Sky or ITV start wedging an advert or two in there?

And that of course is all based on any TV official getting the decision right. What happens when the inevitable mistakes (and even perceived mistakes) happen? If we take the example of Portsmouth’s penalty on Sunday, the perceived wisdom of the ex-pro pundits was that it wasn’t a penalty as Palacios “got the ball”. Only he gets the ball by what is considered a challenge from behind – which is a foul regardless of whether or not he gets the ball. And if you watch the replays enough (and this was missed by all the ex-pro pundits on Sunday), Palacios clips Dindane’s left heel with his right foot in the stride before he puts the challenge in. If it takes several views to see that, and rule it a penalty, and Jim Beglin still thinks it’s not a foul, then the TV pundits are going to tell the viewers that the referee and the TV official are wrong – even when the TV official is right. John Terry’s foul on Saturday was another example where the pundits showed their scant knowledge of the laws of the game. An appalling challenge, but Andy Townsend argued that Terry got the ball. Completely missing the point that the studs up follow-through was a potential leg breaker, and reckless enough to be considered a sending off as serious foul play. Not to mention that John Terry actually missed the ball, and the ball happened to hit Terry on the arse doesn’t constitute ‘contact’.

Anecdotally, I’ve found that most people that regularly go to games don’t want technology because they only see the disruptions and the purity of the game diminishing. On the flip side most of the armchair fans seem to view the introduction of technology not only as important, but vital for the good of the game. Chairmen can make mistakes, managers can make mistakes, so can coaches, and the players themselves, but the officials, despite being the lowest paid participants in any match, and the only ones with no vested interest in the game, aren’t allowed to make mistakes, they’re not allowed to get things wrong, they’re the only ones not allowed to be, well, human. And of all the reasons given for the introduction of technology, the only one that sounds appetising is that it helps reduce the reasons for the callers on phone-ins and Alan Green to whinge. Although you can guarantee that the first time he’s commentating at a game that isn’t being relayed live and therefore he doesn’t have access to any replays, he’ll whinge about the waiting time live never before. But it will just give more time for the fan of what the media deems to the latest crisis club (i.e. whoever is currently fourth in the Premier League) to tell us how vital it is for their club to reach bad things are at their club.

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    14 Comments

  1. The best anti-technology argument I can recall reading.

    One of the more interesting suggestions I’ve seen on addressing the issue of refereeing mistakes is to adopt an NFL-style system whereby coaches can challenge the calls of officials a limited number of times in a match (two per half in the NFL, and the penalty for an incorrect challenge is the loss of a timeout). Again, it creates thumb-twiddling in a sport that is fluid rather than based on ‘plays’, and I can’t work out how to implement a penalty comparable to the loss of a timeout, but on principle I wouldn’t object to this myself. (Of course, it would also create an interesting addition to the manager’s role – I’m sure we can all imagine Warnock and a couple of others getting challenge-happy!)

    A better reform would be to give the referee a microphone a lá rugby union, in my opinion. Doesn’t change the game, does make it clear for all how the referee is calling the shots.

    David Howell

    April 13, 2010

  2. Very nice piece, Rob. Echoes a lot of what we said in The Sound of Football podcast a few weeks ago.

    The only people technology truly benefits is the media who will no doubt be controlling it. Remember kids, nothing that Andy Gray says actually affects anything that goes in the game… for the moment at least.

    Link: http://www.the-onion-bag.com/podcasts/sof_episode_30.mp3

    Graham

    April 14, 2010

  3. @David Howell

    The NFL system of instant replay specifically EXCLUDES penalty calls (bearing in mind that “penalty” in this context refers to any penalisable infraction) whether called or not. It is restricted to matters of fact, and has been the subject of a lot of negative comment in recent seasons.

    RichardS

    April 14, 2010

  4. Superb.

    I think it’s quite instructive to look at recent developments in cricket – a game you’d think would be ideally suited, if any game is, to the use of video replays. Increasingly, it seems that for every controversy settled by ‘technology’, two more arise. Should this decision have been referred or not? Whose footage and sound should be used? Video is proving a hydra-headed beast. Within ten years of even its most tentative introduction to football, it would change the game profoundly and much for the worse.

    Pete

    April 14, 2010

  5. Brilliant article!! I found myself agreeing with all that was written. Especially the bit about everyone else in the game being allowed to make mistakes apart from the only impartial participants – the officials.

    And the bit about all WC qualifiers etc. being ‘as equal’.

    I’m no fan of Blatter but he’s made the right choice here. Match-going fans need the controversy, the banter and the post-match debate, it’s what football has been about since the late 1800s and that’s why it’s the most popular sport in the world.

    Steve Thomas

    April 14, 2010

  6. I embarked upon the reading of this post with a vague idea that I am in favour of goal line technology but your arguments are so lucid that I think you may have won me over to arguing for a retention of the status quo.

    Also at Ipswich recently, Matt Mills’ 4 game ban for a sending off was upheld after Reading appealed subject to video evidence. The tackle still looks like a yellow card offence on television but the FA chose to back the referee. So, even with such “evidence” available, the wrong decision can be made.

    Lanterne Rouge

    April 14, 2010

  7. Excellent article. The “fluid” aspect is the most often overlooked. I agree that keeping refereeing decisions as a human element is correct. I also agree that perhaps a mandatory post-match press conference for the referee would put an end to the hours of speculative nonsense on Sky Sports News that follow any marginal call.

    To anyone considering rugby league an appropriate comparison, please be aware that the 4th official is only present at Sky live games. So on the Friday/Saturday evening games you watch at home there is a video ref, but for the other fixtures that weekend the ref’s decision is final.

    Murdoch has toyed with that particular sport to such an extent that he has had a hand in renaming all the teams, temporarily abolishing promotion and relegation, devaluing the Challenge Cup and, arguably, deciding which teams are to benefit from “better” decisions on a week-by-week basis…

    Roger Payne

    April 15, 2010

  8. Rob, great article. Keep the game as is.

    Instead of changing soccer with technology, why not empower each league? Review the tape of every game & hand out harsh penalties for diving, late tackles, etc., even if the ref didn’t see it or decided not to mark down. If Henry knew he would be banned for 1 year (and fined), would he think twice about handling the ball?

    No appeal either.

    Sunil

    April 19, 2010

  9. @Sunil – That could open a different can of worms, because it’s one thing the player trying something that he believes the official won’t see (which only the player will ever truly know), but if not, are we then doing to give players huge bans, not because of their actions, but because the officials in the cases concerned made a genuine mistake, or had their vision of the incident obscured?

    Rob

    April 19, 2010

  10. Kevin Garnett was suspended for throwing an elbow that if I remember correctly, no game official saw. The game was obviously reviewed by the NBA head office afterward.

    I agree with the main thrust of your article, let the refs call the games without interference or new technology, now & perhaps ever (start with something minor & there will be a clamor for more, better, improved tech).

    You won’t catch everything, I can live with that. And there will always be judgment calls on most incidents – controversy spices up the game.

    I’m guessing players’ (and managers’) behavior will change subtly if they knew there are repercussions for actions on the field. I expect a lot of diving in the World Cup, the refs will ignore or miss most of it. But if FIFA immediately bans the perps for the next game, it stops quickly.

    Over here (US) in the NFL, if you’re suspended for x games, your wages are docked for those games too.

    Sunil

    April 20, 2010

  11. No to technology. But for a long time I’ve advocated a ref and 4 linesman. Not the strange system being experimented with at the moment in the Europa League but 1 linesman covering each of the 4 quarters of the touchline. That way every incident (including offside) has at least 3 viewpoints. Any dispute, majority decision stands. Quick, simple and can apply anywhere

    Wurzel

    April 20, 2010

  12. Spotted Rob’s post on the case against technology in football. BBC World TV are debating this very issue this afternoon and we are keen to speak to Rob about his possible participation. If interested in finding out more please do pop me an email with the best number to reach you on.

    Krupa

    June 28, 2010

  13. sorry, but you’re letting idealism prevent improvement

    Ally

    June 28, 2010

  14. This article is very well written, i like it a lot. It gave me very valuable information.

    Jaden

    December 18, 2013

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