Offside, 13 January

Showing the red card to Robo-refs.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

I’m no technophobe but I’ve always been opposed to the use of video replays to aid football referees. If we eliminate human error from the game we risk diminishing its drama, or so I’ve always thought. But after Pedro Mendes’ goal that never was at Old Trafford, surely only the staunchest troglodyte would oppose the introduction of video technology? Call me Captain Ludd but I’m still not convinced.

When Roy Carroll continued Manchester United’s fine tradition of comical goalkeeping gaffes by spilling Pedro Mendes’ punt over the goal line, nobody could deny that Spurs had suffered a terrible miscarriage of soccer justice. Linesman Rob Lewis, however, denied that he should have gone to Specsaver. ‘The Spurs player shot from distance and I was doing my primary job which was to stand in line with the last defender and watch for an offside’, said Lewis. ‘There was nothing I could have done differently apart from run faster than Linford Christie.’

The incident has renewed the clamour for the introduction of video technology to support referees. ‘What really annoys me is that we are here in 2005, watching something on a TV monitor within two seconds of the incident occurring and the referee isn’t told about it’, said Spurs coach Martin Jol. Somewhat surprisingly Sir Alex Ferguson was in agreement. ‘I think it hammers home what a lot of people have been asking for and that’s that technology should play a part in the game’, said Fergie.

One might expect the beleaguered refereeing community to feel threatened by the introduction of ‘Roboref’ technology, with mobs of Luddite officials roaming the land smashing up pitch-side cameras. But even referees are not opposed in principle. ‘I look positively at new aids if they help us along – if, for example, we could send a signal to a referee’s wristwatch’, said Volker Roth, chair of the UEFA referees’ committee. ‘But I don’t like instant video replays. Football is a fast-flowing game, which should not be chopped up or constantly interrupted.’ Now, the UEFA referees’ committee is not the sort of institution with which any freedom-loving individual ought to have affinity. But I find myself seduced by Herr Roth’s faultless logic.

I think it’s only a matter of time before instant goal-line technology is introduced. Indeed Adidas has developed a whizzy new system in which a ball fitted with a microchip can send an instant signal to the fourth official if it crosses the goal line. (Trust the Germans to invent a gadget to prevent a repeat of Geoff Hurst’s goal!). The Adidas gizmo will be trialed at the Carling Cup Final in February 2005 and, if approved by FIFA, could be introduced as early as next season.

But I too draw the line at video replays. These are fine for sports like rugby or cricket, where there are frequent breaks in play, but would disrupt the flow of a football game. More importantly, video replays will not put a stop to refereeing controversies. Why? Because disputes over purely factual decisions, such as whether a ball crossed the line, are relatively rare: Geoff Hurst in 1966, Clive Allen’s shot that rebounded off the stanchion in 1980, Chesterfield’s disallowed goal against Middlesborough in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final, Ray Parlour’s effort against Finland in 2001…you can count these famous howlers on the fingers of one hand (albeit one with seven or eight digits).

Most disputed refereeing decisions involve a large slice of opinion. Was a handball deliberate? Was a player in an offside position interfering with play? Did a player dive or was contact made? Did a foul tackle warrant a red card? Referees have to make these difficult judgements every week and invariably get some wrong. Even TV pundits, aided by video replays from several camera angles, cannot always agree. Moreover, interpretations of the laws tend to differ from one country to another. For example, continental referees are more likely to penalise any physical contact with a goalkeeper than their British counterparts, as illustrated by Urs Meier’s infamous decision to rule out Sol Campbell’s ‘goal’ against Portugal at Euro 2004.

Maybe, instead of searching for the Holy Grail of hi-tech, error-free officiating, we should concentrate our efforts on removing some of the moronic rules and regulations that have helped to erode the authority of referees in recent years. A couple of weeks ago Manchester City striker Robbie Fowler was booked for celebrating a goal against Everton by running down the touchline smacking his head – a cute response to taunts about his alleged drug problems. Earlier this season Everton’s Tim Cahill was shown a second yellow for removing his shirt to celebrate a goal.

However much we invest in technology it will never totally eradicate human error, but a few simple rule changes could rid us of countless barmy refereeing decisions immediately.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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Topics Politics


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