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Offside, 21 February

Crystal Palace's Black Sunday makes video replays tempting - but not that tempting.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

In the pantheon of football injustices, Crystal Palace’s disallowed goal against Leeds on 16 February 2003 – or 16/2 as that black day will forever be known – is right up there with Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’, Harald Schumacher’s unpunished foul on Patrick Battiston, and Clive Allen’s disallowed goal for Palace against Coventry in 1980, which bounced back off the stanchion.

Have you noticed that Palace have suffered not one but two of the Greatest Miscarriages of Football Justice in History? Twice we’ve been robbed of goals that were rightfully ours by referees who didn’t see the ball cross the line. Is this merely a coincidence?

If we were Italians we would have taken to the streets to protest at the way the Big Football is conspiring with the masonic football establishment against the little people. Referees would be waking up to find dead animals nailed to their front doors. A Croydon-style fatwa would have been issued against the officials (‘Oi ref, if you ever set foot in Sarf London again we’ll break yer legs’).

The disallowed goal has, however, prompted calls for video replays. ‘The question of whether the ball crossed the line should be decided by introducing technology and video replays’, said Palace manager Trevor Francis. ‘People seem to think it’s quaint when human error comes into play, but I don’t’, fumed Palace chairman Simon Jordan. ‘The monetary loss for clubs is so huge you’ve got to start doing things properly.’

Until 16/2 I was totally opposed to video replays in football. But now I’m not so sure. There are plenty of good arguments against the use of video replays. For a start they would disrupt the flow of the game. I was at Selhurst Park on Black Sunday and the disallowed goal was just one of many controversial refereeing decisions. If the game had been stopped for an official to study video replays of every disputed foul or dodgy offside decision, it would have ruined the match.

But what if we had a whizzy gadget that could instantly detect whether the ball had crossed the goal line – a bit like the Cyclops machine in tennis that bleeps if a serve is out? I could live with that. Indeed some pointy-heads from the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have now developed a system in which a ball is fitted with a minute transmitter which can tell if the ball has crossed the line. The Smartball system will be piloted when Germany play Lithuania in the European championships in March 2003 (albeit 37 years too late to prevent Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal from standing).

But whilst Smartball might be able to settle goal-line disputes, I wouldn’t want to see video replays used for other controversial incidents. For a start, decisions about offsides, penalties, or cautionable offences are not straightforward factual questions but involve a large slice of interpretation. More importantly, if we go down the road of using technology to eradicate human error we are in danger of further undermining referees’ already fragile authority.

Human error is a necessary corollary of refereeing discretion, and the last thing today’s referees need is even less discretion. Over the past decade, referees have seen the scope for exercising their judgement substantially reduced by the football authorities. In the past, the use of a caution or dismissal would have been a last resort after a referee’s attempts to control a game by talking to players had failed.

But referees today have little choice but to caution players for fouls, regardless of malicious intent, or for a whole host of fairly petty offences. For example, the Scottish Football Association recently instructed referees to book players who ‘run to the perimeter wall to celebrate excessively with spectators’. Referees were never popular with fans but thanks to idiotic diktats such as this, they are losing the respect of players too.

Simon Jordan might be counting the financial cost of the disallowed goal, but eradicating human error from refereeing would diminish the essential drama of football. Thousands of irate fans baying for the referee’s blood as he leaves the field of play under police escort – it’s a fine tradition that must not disappear. Who would we vent our anger on if video replays eradicated incorrect refereeing decisions? There’s no point chanting ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ at an inanimate video player.

Moreover, we need that smouldering sense of injustice to give us succour when our team is defeated. We need to believe that England would have beaten Argentina in 1986 if only the referee has spotted Maradona’s punch. If we can’t blame the referee we would have to confront the unpalatable truth that we lost because we were second best. And that would be too much to bear.

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Topics Politics

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