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Opinion | Technology without integrity is a zero-sum game

One of the problems with being what Australians might call a ‘soccer tragic’ is the amount of time frittered away watching nameless players in unpronounceable teams competing in games which have little or no context or meaning but which – and this is the hope that kills us – might just get interesting.

Over the course of a lifetime, many hours – which might otherwise have been invested in learning Swahili, painting landscapes, mastering the classical guitar or simply sorting those piles of unfiled letters in the office – has been spent glued to the exploits of some bunch of no-hopers in the Botswanan Fourth Division (no offence, of course) and their equivalents around the world. 

Football has that bizarrely hypnotic effect.  It’s a global comfort zone and wall-to-wall television coverage means it is possible to dive in and immerse yourself more or less 24/7. Just let the real world drift by. 

And so it was that I recently stumbled across a Belgian league game one idle Sunday afternoon as a tax return lay unattended at my elbow.

What caught my eye was not so much the action – there wasn’t too much of that – but the fact that, at the moment I found the channel, the referee was standing on the halfway line with what appeared to be a black plastic bag over his head.

Now I’ve heard it said that referees’ heads can be found in some odd anatomic nooks and crannies, but this was a novel and bizarre sight.

Time stood still as the camera lingered on the torso of the referee before his triumphal emergence blowing his whistle and pointing to the penalty spot.

What I’d just seen was my first European league experience of the video assistant referee system in action and, inelegant though it may have looked, our man in the middle was merely consulting a video monitor (the black bag is a sort of hood to provide the best viewing conditions) to help him make the right call over a spotkick he may not otherwise have given.

Wider use

The Royal Belgian League is just one of the competitions in which video technology is being trialled right now. It has also been used in Germany, in last year’s Confederations Cup and in Fifa age-group championships with a view to deciding whether to use it at the World Cup itself in Russia next summer.

While the use of goal-line technology has become commonplace there are still rumblings about the wider use of video in decision-making elsewhere on the field.

There are those in football who still believe that the referee’s unaided decision should be final and hang the consequences but that’s a view which gets more difficult to sustain every time a perfectly capable referee is humiliated when a decision taken in good faith and on the evidence of his own eyes is shown by 100 different camera angles to be wrong.

It’s often said football is about opinions and that it’s the endless debate around every issue which makes it so appealing.

That may be the romantic’s view but if you’re the owners of a club which has just been relegated and lost $100m of guaranteed income because a referee has given a dodgy penalty against you, it is likely you’ll take a different view.

There is far too much at stake in top-level football for referees to be left to get on with the job with only the help of their assistants patrolling distant touchlines.

This is not a criticism of referees but an acknowledgement of the absurdity of millions of armchair fans and studio pundits having a view the technologically unarmed referee doesn’t enjoy.

Some broadcasters even employ a former referee to judge the performance of the poor guy in the middle who is, inevitably, on a hiding to nothing.

We’ve heard all the arguments many times before. Video technology has improved to the extent you no longer have to wait ages for replays which means the flow of the game is not significantly interrupted.  It is used successfully in other sports including the NFL and both rugby codes. In tennis the use of Hawkeye on line calls has become part of the event….and so on, and so on.

It’s worth pointing out here that no video replay system is infallible. If you don’t have a camera pointing in the right place at the right time you won’t get the pictures you need and there have been occasions in rugby – where the ball is sometimes obscured by a mass of bodies and flailing limbs – where even the video ref has been impotent.

But these instances are fairly rare, and it makes little sense to hold back progress on the basis of the occasional unavoidable failure of the system.

In recent years the culture among referees themselves seems to have changed. Instead of being defensive and seemingly threatened by the technology, they have come to accept it helps them do a better job by significantly increasing their chances of making the right call.

Ensuring fairness

On the face of it there seems no barrier to football entering a new era of sound decision-making ensuring fairness to all and a level playing field for investors, supporters, broadcasters, sponsors and all the other stakeholders in the game.

There is just one fly in the ointment. No matter how good video technology becomes, no matter how swiftly the replays are delivered and no matter how slo the mo, players have the capacity to fool it. In particular, I refer to players who dive to win penalties under the slightest of challenges.

Week in-week out pundits are left to decide whether some or other challenge was worthy of a penalty or whether a player had “gone down too easily.” That’s shorthand for cheated. Take any trio of ex-pros and the chances are they will split 2:1 on any given decision – that’s how tricky it is.

Let’s hope the current trials in Belgium and elsewhere have proved successful enough to encourage Fifa to introduce video assistant referees for Russia 2018 – it must be a step forward.

But never forget that even the best technology on the market counts for nothing if players don’t support it with integrity.

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