“A trial of the use of video assistant referees for ‘game-changing decisions’ in football will begin no later than the 2017-18 season.” The opening sentence of the BBC’s report of the International Football Association Board meeting held in Cardiff in March 2016. Newly installed FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, is quoted as saying : “We cannot close our eyes to the future but it doesn’t mean to say it will work. The flow of the game is crucial. We cannot put that in danger. That is why we have to be open to test.”
As a grass-roots football referee and somebody who has followed, played, coached and been involved in the ‘beautiful game’ for as long as I can remember, you would be forgiven for thinking that I would welcome trials of technological tools that have the stated aim of improving decision-making during matches. In fact, it is something that I am very uneasy about, for two main reasons.
Firstly, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the use of video technology in both rugby union and cricket is ruining those sports as spectator events, undermining the credibility of the on-field officials, and contributing very little to the conclusive determination of often marginal decisions. In cricket, for example, it seems that every run out or stumping decision now gets automatically referred to the third umpire, disrupting the flow of the game and shifting attention from the umpire and players to the TV director and the gadgetry that allows for multiple repeats from all angles and zoom-in close-ups. And even with all of that, it’s still often unclear whether a ‘catch’ has been taking cleanly or if the ball has brushed the ground before nestling into the palm of the fielder. Watching coverage of the current T20 World Cup from India has become incredibly frustrating as the tension during a tight and compelling run chase is allowed to seep away while fourteen replays confirm that the on-field umpire’s initial feeling was correct!
Similarly, in rugby union, the award of a try is delayed while the TV referee checks for foul play on the fringe of a ruck half a minute before the crucial break was made; or seeks to determine with the help of six angles and a slow-motion replay whether the critical pass was fractionally forward. An eighty minute rugby match now typically takes at least twenty minutes longer than that to complete through a combination of delays for injuries, multiple substitutions, and waiting for TV referee advice to the on-field official. And often, with the ball buried somewhere in a pile of bodies, despite all the angles available to the TV director, it’s still not possible to say conclusively whether it’s been legally grounded beyond the try line or not.
And has the use of video technology in rugby or cricket meant that all decisions are now 100% correct? Have the players and supporters of these sports stopped once and for all the heated discussions about whether a player was out or not, or whether that last-minute penalty should have been awarded? I’ll leave it to you to decide on that.
My second objection is much more philosophical, and builds on the comments of two current English Premiership managers when they were asked about the use of video technology in football earlier in the year. Roberto Martinez was quoted as saying : “We should allow the referees to make their own decisions and manage the game. Clearly if they cannot see an incident that is something they need help with. Mistaken identity for example. Those sorts of decisions I always felt video technology could be helpful, but I wouldn’t like to take the human error away from the game. Human error is part of football. It is a game of errors and how you react to these errors as a player and a referee should be exactly the same.” Mauricio Pochettino was even more emphatic : “More technology? I doubt whether it is good for football. The good thing in football is that we can speak after the game a lot about whether it was a red card or yellow card or was it offside or not offside. I think football needs to keep things important such as the human decision. I think football needs to keep its sense of the past.”
It’s interesting that both Martinez and Pochettino are foreign managers who have grown up in countries (Spain and Argentina respectively) where football’s contribution to regional and national identity and culture is at least as significant as it has been in the UK. Pochettino and Martinez emphasise the importance of the human element (including the potential for human error) as one of a recipe of ingredients that makes football the compelling drama that attracts crowds of spectators to grounds all over the world and at all levels of the game.
I would go one step further than this, suggesting that its the direct connection between the game played by the very top players at the FIFA World Cup finals, and that played by enthusiastic amateurs on their local park on a Sunday morning, that gives football it’s universal appeal. In essence, its 22 players on a rectangular pitch, with universal markings, standard sized goal-posts, a round ball, and a referee with two assistants. Wherever you go in the world, those fundamental elements are what define football – whether on the municipal parks pitches of major UK cities, the memorial grounds of rural communities, the dust pitches of Morocco, or the covered 3G arenas of Iceland. Even children having a kick-about on a patch of scrub land can throw down a couple of jumpers for goal-posts and let their imaginations transport them to the Etihad, the Maracana, or the Camp Nou. Football is, to this extent at least, still essentially a socialist sport – accessible to all irrespective of class, gender, ability, age, or ethnicity. The introduction of technology-enhanced refereeing threatens the universality of the footballing experience, breaking the connection between the version of the game played at the elite level and that played at the grass-roots. I may be a romantic, but that seems to me to be a high price to pay to ‘correct’ the handful of dodgy decisions that can truly be described as significant in the context of any given season or tournament.