Goal-line technology? We have bigger fish to fry

So the International Football Association Board has agreed that goal-line technology should be introduced in football at some point over the next season.

IFAB considered this a few short years ago. At that point, they were opposed to it but now the scales (apparently) have fallen from their eyes. What has hastened this change?

A cynic might say that the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English FAs (who make up half of IFAB) might be a little twitchy about their status on the game’s rule-making body and will join in with whichever song that Mr Blatter happens to be singing at a given time. He has changed his mind and they, therefore, must change theirs.

Cynicism aside, this is a regrettable step. Everyone can point to an example, or incident, where their team has been wronged because the ball either crossed the line and a goal was not given (or vice-versa). However, most fans will be able to point to many, many more examples of where a player was/wasn’t sent off; an offside was/wasn’t given; a dive was/wasn’t spotted and so on and so forth. Goal-line technology is a smokescreen. We should be focusing on why our referees make so many mistakes generally rather than focusing on a relatively infrequent event. This is like the police worrying about petty crime when gangsters are on the loose and wreaking havoc.
Earlier this week I was watching Wimbledon. A line-call was shouted out and the player – whose name I have forgotten – challenged the call. We got that nauseating slow hand-clap that the middle class mummies do after three glasses of Pimm’s at their sole annual sporting event as Hawkeye showed that the ball had actually touched the line. The commentator said ”How easy was that? Why oh why do we not have that in soccer?”. My initial reaction was, in a red fury, to walk to my oven, heat some olive oil and sauté my own face. However, after a stiff talking to and an even stiffer drink, I wondered why the suggestion angered me so much?

Firstly, as above, I think this is a classic example of misdirection from the footballing authorities. We see monumentally bad decisions being made in many games and we know that referees often fail basic tests on the laws of the game. This is a systemic issue and we avoid it because it is difficult to solve. We reach for easy solutions.

These, to me, seem to be big problems in how the game is adjudicated and affect the outcomes of games on a far more frequent basis than whether or not a ball crossed the line. I think far too many people in the game – and people who should know better – focus disproportionately on the small number of goal-line cases. I’d rather we focused on ensuring that referees were (a) fitter (b) had a better knowledge of the laws of the game (c) were technically able to apply that knowledge in the course of the game than to set up a system that will be used infrequently.

Secondly, the comparing of apples and oranges is generally a bizarre course of action and comparing directly across sports is a fraught activity. Something may very well work in tennis, rugby union and cricket but it doesn’t follow that because of this then it must also work in football.

In tennis, it is reasonable to assume that each player will suffer tight line calls on a number of occasions in each set. This is why each player gets a set number of chances to challenge tight line calls. Note that a player can, if they so wish, frivolously call one if they so wish – to unsettle an opponent or to gain a few seconds additional rest. Moreover, tennis is obviously a series of plays in a way that football is not.

In cricket, at the highest level, teams have a number of reviews that they can opt to use and they do so when they need to.

In both of these games, we are asking players not only to play the game but also to have a hand in adjudicating it. That changes any number of things about the game – further undermining the authority of the umpire and, also, putting undue pressure on the players who have to make a challenge. I’m delighted that neither of the automated systems in football suggests this. The last thing that we need is giving players – particularly some of our more vocal captains – even more power.

In rugby, when the ball is grounded (or when it might be grounded) the play stops. This happens fairly frequently in games and, unlike in tennis and cricket, does not involve any additional burden on the players. In rugby union, it is up to the referee to decide whether something should be referred to the TV referee and the answer can depend massively on the question he asks.

In football, however, an ”over the line” incident does not happen in every game. Indeed, for many teams it will not happen over the course of the season. I can think, I think, of Liverpool being involved in such incidents twice in my football viewing life.

Thirdly, and perhaps, more pertinently there is an issue here of how and when technology should be used. We accept, generally, that video evidence can be used in football after a game has occurred to see if a referee missed a foul – and a player can be retrospectively disciplined for action on the pitch even if he wasn’t disciplined at the time.

In football, with the two proposed systems, the referee will be alerted if the ball goes over the line (presumably by some level of electronic communication). That is fine, I suppose, and infinitely better than a captain screaming at the referee to refer it to a third party. But here’s the rub: why should we only use such technology for this one issue?

Take the following example:

Imagine a forward who is in an offside lobs the goalkeeper and a defensive player clears the ball from inside the goal. The defensive player isn’t cheating, he genuinely thought that the ball was still in play, and was in his rights to belt the ball out.

The referee is signalled via his earpiece that the ball has gone over the line. The goal is given.

How is that fair? How is the integrity of the sport held up? On the one hand, we accept referees make mistakes. On the other hand, we do not.
Some will argue that ‘’you have to take the rough with the smooth’’. Exactly! So don’t introduce technology. Others will say that ‘’referees, and their assistants, do make mistakes and that is unfortunate’’. Fine. But what is good for one team is surely for the other? Why is one situation in the above example worthy of technology and not the other? If we do admit referees make mistakes, why couldn’t – or shouldn’t – we introduce much wider video referral technology – for any contentious decision.

Goal-line technology is a solution for a problem that isn’t really there. It is a placebo to make us feel better when we know that rather than focusing on this occasional brouhaha we should be focusing on how do we help referees make better decisions.

In a world with goal-line technology, Maradona would still have scored the Hand of God; van Persie would still have been sent off against Barcelona; the Beachball goal would still have stood; Henry’s handball in the build-up to a goal against Ireland would have been missed; and Schumacher would have stayed on the pitch after assaulting Battiston.
No one says it but football is better when it gives us talking points and when it gives us stuff to debate about. We all know that mistakes will happen. We should work to minimise those mistakes but it seems perverse to focus on something that happens twice a season when we could, and should, be focusing on the mistakes referees make each week.
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