Tag Archives: Football

Bordeaux or Bust!

So – it’s finally arrived. That moment that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. Wales playing in a major football tournament. A real one. Not the Home Internationals. Not even the Nations Cup (remember that one?!). This is the real thing. The European Championships, for heavens’ sake. And to make things even better, it’s in France. The best place in the world to host a major sports event. The most beautiful people, cuisine to die for, wine which is the very nectar of the gods – and you can drive there from Wales!

Oh! And Dan and me have got tickets for Wales’ opening game against Slovakia on Saturday night.

So it was that we set out from Cardiff at 7.30pm on Thursday to catch the midnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. Brittany Ferries MV Normandie had the honour of delivering more Welshmen to the French coast in a single crossing than at any time in the last 72 years! You knew that something special was happening when the strains of Calon Lan were intermingled with that bloody awful “Football’s coming home” (I refuse to include a link – you’ll have to search for it yourself!) as we waited to board the ferry. Yes – there were one or two English supporters making the same crossing on their way to Marseille for their opener against Russia.

One of the things that being a Welsh football supporter teaches you is resilience. Resilience in the face of decades of near misses and crushing disappointment (Joe Jordan’s ‘hand of god’ moment, anybody?). But that resilience also converts in limitless optimism. This was exemplified in Portsmouth by the 30 year old VW Camper Van packed with six burly, north Walian football supporters, five of whom were already well on their way to alcohol-fuelled unconsciousness by the time we rolled onto the ferry. I genuinely hope for their sakes that that van was only for transport purposes. I dread to think what it would be like if they were planning to sleep in it too!

Arriving in Caen on a cloudy Friday morning, we set out on the 500km drive to the south west of France and Bordeaux. It took a long time on very straight roads and we didn’t see anything very interesting on the way. That’s all that needs to be said about that.

Having checked-in to our hotel, we set off for a walk along the river bank in the general direction of Bordeaux’s European Championships Fan Zone. Stopping off for some food on the way, we arrived at the fan zone in plenty of time for the local pre-match warm up entertainment on a stage in front of the biggest, sharpest giant television screen that I have ever seen.

In truth, the opening match between France and Romania wasn’t a classic. It did however, provide further evidence of the truth that football is like modern jazz. Long periods of formless cacophany punctuated by moments of the most exquisite harmony. Last night, the harmony was provided by Dimitri Payet with a goal worthy of winning the Championship, never mind the opening group game. To say that the French fans in Bordeaux were pleased would be a severe understatement!

I hope that we Wales fans get to savour a similar moment against Slovakia later today.

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Pre-opening match dinner – the French recognise that beer drinkers can’t be trusted with glass!

Video referees – another nail in the coffin of the people’s game?

“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.

Artificial distinctions based on ignorance and myopia

Regular followers of this blog will know that one of my passions is football (soccer, if you’re reading this in North America). It’s a truly social, democratic sport, in the sense that it can be played almost anywhere where there’s a patch of relatively flat ground, four jumpers/sweaters that can be put down to form goals, a minimum of two players and a ball. That’s fundamentally the only inventory that’s required for a form of football to take place.

Traditionally, football has been played on grass pitches, but these have the distinct disadvantage of getting very muddy and slippery in wet weather; and very hard and dusty during a dry spell. Neither set of conditions is really conducive to ‘good football’. And so over a long period of time, scientists and textile suppliers have been working on developing artificial playing surfaces that have all the attributes of grass, but with the added advantages of good drainage and consistent, regular playing conditions whatever the climactic conditions might be. An indirect consequence of these new surfaces is that they can be used really intensively (several times a day) without any significant deterioration in the quality of the playing surface. The most recent version of these pitches (Third Generation or 3G standard playing surfaces) are approved for use by the World Governing Body for football (FIFA) and recent qualification games for the European Football Championships in 2016 have been played on them.

I think the game's in doubt!

I think the game’s in doubt!

Unfortunately, football is administered and controlled by a lot of very conservative people. Change is never easy, and even when a proposal offers enormous benefits for players, clubs and spectators, you cannot rely on the Game to do the sensible thing. Today saw a gold-plated example of this, when the professional football club chairmen who control teams in the third and fourth tiers of football in England voted NOT to approve the use of 3G pitches for matches in their league divisions from the 2015/16 season (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/29919748). The decision, when it came, was actually something of a surprise, given that the a majority of those voting today had given a clear indication as recently as September, that they would be supporting the proposal. The reasons for the change of heart are shrouded in mystery, but a contributory factor appears to have been fears about the safety of 3G pitches when compared with grass.

The same yesterday, today and for at least two or three years!

The same yesterday, today and for at least two or three years!

It is this that annoys me about the decision, because it is based on either ignorance of the evidence that already exists about the equivalence of grass and 3G pitches when it comes to the incidence of injury per minutes played on the two surfaces (see later references); or it is a wilful ‘blindness’ to that evidence as part of some misguided belief that football has to be played on a grass pitch and that’s all there is to it.

The irony is that where clubs in other leagues (for example in the Welsh Premier League) have invested in 3G pitches, the benefits are being seen not just in terms of the quality and consistency of the playing surface, but also in terms of income streams (as the pitches are used by other teams in the local community throughout the week for games and training), and increasing the connection of the club to the local community. In both respects, clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 of the English pyramid had much to gain from allowing the use of 3G pitches – increasing their sustainability (in terms of cashflow) and their place in their communities (fulfilling the social democratic ‘bargain’ that inextricably binds a club to its people and place).

It is to be hoped that it will not take too long for common sense to prevail, and for football clubs and governing bodies at all levels to recognise that football is the world game that it is because it has constantly evolved and embraced new technologies and approaches. For this football lover at least, the days when 3G pitches are the norm cannot come too soon.

Are 3G pitches safe to play on

The studies that have been completed to date make a clear distinction between the early days of astroturf pitches that were much less safe for players than the grass equivalent, and the newer iterations of the artificial surface, including 3G pitches. For the latter, all the evidence suggests that the incidence of injury expressed in terms of hours played is not significantly different than for grass. There is some evidence that the nature of injuries may be slightly different (especially in terms of ‘wear’ injuries), but even this is weak. You can read more at the references below

http://www.scienceofsocceronline.com/2013/06/injury-risk-artificial-turf-vs-natural.html

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/821983

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2465249/