Soccer and Technology – Like Holy Water and Electricity

Another miss for FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

One thing is clear. Sepp Blatter, FIFA, and most soccer fans fear change. Proposing a rule change in soccer is like taking away a Republican’s right to bear arms – it is met with fanatical indignity and resistance. The Laws of the Game are to soccer people as the Constitution is to Republicans. “How can something that is perfect, flawless in every way, be changed?” they snort. The rules, penned more than 100 years ago, are held in sacred light. They are as holy as the bible, and equally outdated.

Last summer, England’s Frank Lampard unleashed a lightning bolt against Germany that flashed over the outstretched fingertips of the goalkeeper, thundered off the crossbar, and bounced down onto the pitch. It did not bounce quite straight down, but on a slight angle, crossing the goal line for a 38th minute equalizer. Watching a 28″ TV from a distance of about 15 feet, I saw it go in. I reacted as many England fans did, first, by cheering, and then by standing there, arms out, jaw dropped, eyes dazed. “What just happened?” I wondered aloud, perhaps more colourfully at the time. Then, when it hit me, I hung my head, realizing that the dinosaurs in charge of soccer had asked for this to happen. The endlessly inept referees had missed it, and there was no backup plan to compensate for the distinct possibility of human error affecting the outcome of a World Cup match. Even after Geoff Hurst’s nearly identical World Cup winning goal in 1966, in which the call controversially went the other way, there was still no backup plan. Even after Maradona’s Hand of God in 1986, there was still no backup plan. Even after the Thierry Henry handball debacle months before South Africa, there was still no backup plan. Now, on the biggest stage, FIFA had egg on it’s face, and England had a 2-1 deficit, which soon became World Cup defeat.

Video replay has been around since the 1950s, when Hockey Night in Canada first used it in a broadcast. In recent decades, the technology has been widely used by professional sports organizations to confirm the validity of decisions made by officials during the course of play. It seems as though every major sports organization in the world uses it to ensure the integrity of the game. Every major organization except for the all-knowing FIFA, that is. How can it be that FIFA has never implemented video review? Here’s how.

Blatter experimenting with audio review. You can clearly hear the ball crossing the line.

In 2005, FIFA’s general secretary, Urs Linsi said, “Players, coaches and referees all make mistakes… What you see after the fact on video simply doesn’t come into it… Video evidence is useful for disciplinary sanctions, but that’s all. As we’ve always emphasised at FIFA, football’s human element must be retained. It mirrors life itself and we have to protect it.” Sepp Blatter, himself, the president of FIFA once said that mistakes made by referees are part of the “fascination and popularity of football.” After reading these comments I was, once again, left standing slack-jawed and dejected. It is true that players, coaches, and referees all make mistakes. This is an intrinsic truth to sports. As fans, we watch to see players battle each other into making mistakes. We do not watch to see referees blow a call. All true sports fans want to see their team win fair and square. When a game is decided by a referee’s poor decision, the integrity of the game is compromised, and no true fan wants to see that.

It seems that finally, after the Lampard controversy, FIFA is revisiting the possibility of implementing some sort of backup plan. This is hardly comforting, given the language used. “Possibility,” “some sort.” The headlines read the we “might” see goal line technology in Brazil 2014. There is no guarantee, however, because, as Blatter says, “the tests we have had so far are not conclusive.” So, why not implement video review? They have agreed to position two additional referees on each goal line, which is a step in the right direction about 100 years late, but still, why not video review?

A silver lining from this week's International Football Association Board's AGM is that they came to a decision to outlaw the wearing of snoods to keep warm because players could potentially hang themselves from the crossbar. Bravo, soccer bureaucrats. Bravo.

Video review is proven to work in most cases. There is still an element of human error involved, which has bit me in the ass twice. In 2004, when the Calgary Flames were denied the potential Stanley Cup winning goal, and in 2002 when the Oakland Raiders were eliminated from the NFL playoffs by a blown video review on the “tuck rule.” There is also the example of Brett Hull’s Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime in 1999. These are some of the few examples of video review failures. In most cases, video evidence gives a clear picture, the right call is eventually made, and the game continues on the way it should. It is proven to work in ice hockey, football, basketball, baseball, rugby, tennis, cricket, field hockey, auto racing, and even bull riding! Come on, soccer!

If FIFA continues to refuse to protect the integrity of it’s sport from terrible haircuts and sickening fakers, then it should at least protect it from the constant threat of blown calls. The technology is there. It has been there for decades. It is time to use it.

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