Monday, 28 June 2010

Fairness and Video Technology

Following Frank Lampard's disallowed goal against Germany, and then Carlos Tevez's goal against Mexico which in turn was allowed, despite an impromptu video replay in the stadium showing that Tevez was conspicuously offside, the cry has been renewed for video technology to be introduced into the “multi-million pound” world of football, as a matter of urgent common sense. Frank Lampard wants it. Tim Henman wants it, as does Sue Barker, who interviewed him the day after at Wimbledon. Gary Lineker certainly wants it. (This is far too important an issue for the BBC to maintain its customary effort at impartiality). Smarting redly at England's ignominious defeat against Germany, Lineker muttered to Match Of The Day panellists Hansen and Shearer that video technology was something for which “everyone” was clamouring but which was denied solely because of the obduracy of “Sepp Blatter and his cronies”.

Now, there are doubtless plenty of reasons to narrow one's eyes in the direction of Sepp Blatter, as well as the dubious operations of FIFA. However, in this context, Blatter's role is the nebulous one of greasy, foreign Head Gnome, acting in an arbitrary and high-handed way, his agenda, like that of Michel Platini, to do England down.

However, wrong as he may be in all kinds of ways and about all kinds of things, Blatter is right to rule out video technology. This is not to say that mistakes have not been made, will be made. However, so it has been since the beginning of footballing time. They are a very occasional hazard, rather than fatal occurrences. In 1932, for example, in what became known as the “over the line” final, Newcastle beat Arsenal following an equaliser from a long ball which according to photographic evidence crossed the dead ball line before winger Jimmy Richardson crossed it back into play. Unfortunate, but hardly the ruin of Arsenal, who went on to dominate the decade, winning three successive championships. And one hardly needs point up the disingenuous smirks with which Englanders discuss Geoff Hurst's extra time goal in the 1966 World Cup Final, which are doubtless on the lips of German fans today. In both games, it was clear who ultimately deserved to win.

But then, some argue, now that we have such technology, which is applied in tennis and rugby, why not apply it in football? Well, for one thing, both tennis and rugby are games which are full of pauses in play, changes of end, interruptions. The technology slots in well to such games. In football, which is already increasingly blighted by outbreaks of heated, onfield litigation, you can be sure that the natural flow of the game would be broken up even more.

There is also the principle, cited by FIFA, of expense. It is one thing to have VT installed at the high end of the game, the World Cup, the Champions League. But then how far down into the domestic leagues can such a fundamental change in the way the game is refereed be applied? It is one of the virtues of football that the rules as abided by in organised leagues of pub teams on Hackney Marshes are the same as those abided by at the Nou Camp. In a game that is becoming increasingly high ended and subject to corporate forces, this egalitarian thread feels sovereign. Video Technology would be in breach of that. Sure, it's been argued, there are no fourth officials or technical areas on Hackney Marshes. Fair point, but these are far less radical tools of adjudication. Moreover, despite the claims of VT advocates that they would be sparing in its use, there's little doubt that once introduced it would be the thin end of the wedge – pressure would soon be applied, and succumbed to, for video adjudication on penalties, offsides, free-kicks, off-the-ball incidents. Then you would have a two-tier football – one at the high end, full on interruptions and contested decisions, the other its poor, increasingly detached, video-less relation.

Rugby is a salutary example in other ways. A relatively small sport compared with football, it's been subjected to all kinds of modernisation (Murdochisation?) in order to make a play for a bigger audience, suffering the undignified uprooting of many of its traditions. It isn't just video technology, it's giant hooters in lieu of final whistles and teams renamed The Rhinos. The marketing people, the meddlers, have been able to have their way with it, and to an extent, cricket. They would love to do the same to football and have certainly succeeded in making some inroads in some ways. However, the deep-rooted, worldwide nature of the game has made it fundamentally resistant in other respects. In football, you still get teams called Wanderers and Rovers. There are, as yet, no Super leagues, 39th games. And there is, as yet, no video technology. It's all of a piece.

The most loudly professed concern of those pressing for VT is fairness. However, in the balance of things, a sort of makeshift karma, or simply the laws of chance, ensures that eventually these things balance out – cf, 1966, 2010. The imperfections of the present system should function as a reminder that this is just a game, which should be neither overvalued nor undervalued as such. Moreover, if fairness is the paramount concern, than there are surely far more pressing issues to address in the modern game – the super-privileges of the top few moneyed teams in Europe, and their continued efforts to ensure that the ladder of opportunity is pulled up behind them, with success and access to the best emerging talent exclusive to them in perpetuity. Or the way fans are increasingly squeezed by opportunistic club owners, some of whom are making them pay for their own, ill-advised, leveraged purchases. These represent far larger injustices than the odd bad decision visited on a just wage earner like Frank Lampard.


  1. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, fucking rugby name-changes, yes, yes, and yes indeed.

  2. I'm not sure on this... surely the technology exists to make the use of video relatively painless. When the whole world saw the ball cross the line would it have been too much for someone to tell the referee? It'd take a 4th official with access to tv and internet seconds to verify decisions.

    I used to go along with the argument that football totally reflected the injustices of life, and so it bore a kind of romanticism. That's not true these days when a loyal fan may get picked up for stopping cm's into a box junction on the way to watch a match, only to then have their team's goal disallowed at a crucial moment. Surveillance seems to work perfectly well when it's least wanted, not when it'd put a smile on faces. Fifa, just like many powerful bodies, in many fields, are just be way behind the times. Add to that some regular and plausible mutterings in corners of the media about the likliehood that there is an awful lot of match fixing going on, and one wonders... hmmm, I mean, I'm doing my best poignant rhetorical pause here... one really wonders... (not that I think that match was fixed. England were just knackered and unhappy, not to mention lacking in ability at the back).

    Two other things. I can't work out where you stand here, but I thought Tomorrow's World solved the issue of whether or not the goal was over the line in 1966, in the late 80's. Apparently it was, but I don't recall how they proved it, and TW got an awful lot about the future wrong in retrospect, not sure if they were any better at history. But it seemed they managed to render the ball's movement in 3-D, in order to follow its trajectory.

    Also as I had to watch in Italian, and sit with gloating Italians who were inexplicably supporting Germany - inexplicable as they genuinely don't like Germans here - can you tell me if Lineker used the word 'obduracy' himself? :)

  3. Unlike the Sunday league, the Premier League or the Champions League, the World Cup only happens every four years. If your team is eliminated by a mistake there is no game next week where the mistake might go in your favour. Most players who get knocked out of the World Cup will never play in another World Cup match. Players work for two years to get to the World Cup. It only takes 20 seconds to check whether the ball really crossed the line. Don't we owe it to the players to ensure that what goes on the record is what really happened?

    Football is already pretty corporate and commercial. Reducing the incidence of stupid mistakes that cause unfair outcomes is hardly going to make things any worse.

  4. Sorry, good piece, but I cannot agree with several points here. To suggest that football, somehow untainted by modern flunkies, should remain a sporting ‘listed building’ is a bit misguided: after all, the game is clearly damaged goods already.

    There are no 'superleagues' in football? What, then, for example, is the Premier League? A division created almost solely for television and commerce – and one that is a galaxy away from its nearest feed, the Championship. (Was the First Division ‘broken’ as such? Nope, just not as viable a business opportunity.) Or the Champions’ League? This now-nonsensical tournament may throw up some good football, but it’s mainly responsible for creating a footballing elite – ie, the further tier of superpowers that occurs within most European leagues now (as briefly mentioned in the original piece). Is that good for the grass roots of the game? Hardly, but too few seem to have a problem here.

    Anyway – video technology – which is why we’re all here. The Henman/Barker examples make for an amusing illustration against the use of video evidence, but it’s a safe assumption that there are many, many more valid names within the game itself crying out for its use – and, astonishing as it may seem, only a percentage are disgruntled England fans. This really isn’t an ‘England’ issue: ask any Mexican, for a start – though the fact that both England and Mexico would likely have lost their matches anyway is irrelevant. After the game with Argentina, Sepp Blatter was quoted as admitting that it had been a ‘mistake’ to show Tevez’s contentious opener (for ‘contentious’ read ‘clearly offside’) on the big stadium screens – which, I have to say, was not at all ‘impromptu’. If the giant screens cannot show goals, then why are they there? The clear issue here is surely one of apparent incompetence in the officials by allowing the goal to stand – and not the danger of crowd incitement by replaying it. I mean, how many times is this likely to happen? A fair few, I’d wager – which will often be outside the control of the officials. Thus, goal-line video technology would help reduce, or even eliminate, this problem. At present, the crowd can see what referees should be able to see, but cannot. And then cannot change a decision in spite of it. Which, to my mind, is just one thing: insane.

    As for pauses in play, football doesn’t have as many as some other sports, I agree – but I can think of far too many ugly, on-pitch demonstrations by wronged parties that already delay play for longer than should be necessary. The CL’s ‘poor cousin’, the UEFA Europa League (or whatever it’s going to be called this season) was used last time out to test-drive extra officials – with some success – so why not try video technology here? There are enough games to gauge efficiency and all of Europe would then have a taste of it. It’s no argument to say ‘goal-line technology wouldn’t work’ for the simple reason that it’s unquantifiable until tested out. (That said, bringing video evidence in elsewhere on the pitch is a far more complicated argument, and one only for such time that goal-line technology is already installed.)

    ‘We managed okay without it before now’ is, of course, another common shout, one that conveniently forgets that the technology didn’t actually exist in this golden-hued past – as it didn’t for giant, pitch-side screens. I’m sure the rest of us managed just as well without mobile ‘phones, iPods, the internet, etc, etc: oddly none of us can now imagine a world without these things. Similarly, there are more than enough arguments for video technology in football now. I’m not going to say that it ‘will’ work, either – just that by not trying it out at all, the powers that be in the game will simply perpetuate the image of slowly-decaying, obstinate Luddites that they’ve been inflicting upon themselves for decades. JKS

  5. Moulded Stubbs...

  6. Then you would have a two-tier football – one at the high end, full on interruptions and contested decisions, the other its poor, increasingly detached, video-less relation.

    This is already the case in rugby - which happens to have been not only modernised but in fact professionalised in the very recent past, so people are rather sensitised to what these changes mean - and nobody seems to see it as a major problem. That said, I agree with most of what you write here. I'd just equip goals with a sensor, the way they are in ice hockey for instance - that ought to be pretty straightforward. But yes, I can see lots of problems with letting the play go and then reviewing it in the case of offsides for instance. That just changes the whole dynamics of the game, and can you imagine what would happen on the stands? Madness.

    What do we make of the fourth official's sneaky use of video technology to "see" the Zidane-Materazzi incident in 2010? That to me is worse than all the goal-non goal incidents there have been in World Cup history.

  7. Glad Giovanni raised the Zidane sending-off as it's an incident FIFA have never really acknowledged, let alone answered questions on, yet VT was clearly used to send ZZ off. I don't see how it's 'worse' though... It was a red card offence. It was going to penalties anyway. ZZ was just one player who would've taken one.

    I agree with the argument abt playing the same game from top to bottom. VT simply isn't the black-and-white answer some consider it to be. Look at Clive Tyldesley, who crowed that it had only taken him 15 seconds to confirm that a Drogba freekick had crossed the line in this year's FA Cup final. Yet 20 seconds after that, another replay proved Tyldesley wrong.

    Having said that, I think goal-line VT is the only safe bet for in-game decisions. It would be nightmarish to apply it to offside and simulation. Some people are convinced that Torres dived to get a Chile player sent off in that last group game. Watching the same video, to me it is absolutely obvious that he is accidentally tripped and goes down like a sack of shit because he couldn't see & wasn't expecting the trip. He stayed down either because he banged his head on the ground (easy enough if you're unexpectedly tripped) or because he thought the trip was deliberate and wanted the ref to notice it (hardly a great crime in the current footballing climate...)

  8. I don't see how it's 'worse' though... It was a red card offence. It was going to penalties anyway. ZZ was just one player who would've taken one.

    To me what makes it worse is that the officials missing a ball crossing the line is part of the game, whereas Zidane was punished outside of the rules. You either use VT or you don't. He ought to have been found guilty after the match, and suspended for half a dozen games or so - which is what happened to Tassotti in the 94 semifinal. And yes, maybe his sending off didn't change the outcome. But then again maybe it did. And yes, he was guilty, but you can't bend the rules to find him so.

  9. "missing a ball crossing the line is part of the game"

    that sort of gets at what I object to about VT... the BBC didn't begin this World Cup on any kind of crusade to have it brought in... yet the indignation, the sheer disbelieving fury from Lineker and Shearer made clear that now it had happened to *England* something had to be done.

    This kind of post-hoc self-righteousness drives me crazy. There's a total blindness that prevails among commentators: after watching a couple of replays they'll absolutely condemn a ref's error, never thinking for a moment about the fact that the ref made the decision in a split second w/out any replay to refer to.

    I think both teams enter the pitch with the understanding that they will abide by the human (and necessarily fallible) judgement of the ref. It bothers me when teams suddenly object because that fallibility happens to have worked against them. There's a weird duty to be perfect placed upon referees - even as players' flaws are accepted as natural human weakness.

  10. Is the England incident also a potential example of the pitfall of video technology on a simply practical level?

    You can't stop the game at that moment, the moment of the shot crossing the line, to check the video because if the ball hasn't crossed the line (which is what the officials assumed) then it is still in play and Germany are entitle to, as they did, launch a quick counter attack (or just continue with play as they choose) which led to a goalscoring opportunity.

    For arguments sake imagine Germany had scored on their counter, this is now the first natural break in play since the contentious decision and therefore now the video would have to be reviewed - to correct the previous decision the game would effectively have to be wound back a minute England's goal given, Germany's ruled out.

    It would lead to this sort of dead air time - ghost football- where your actions did not count because a previous decision was yet to be corrected. What happens if the next natural break is a booking, or a red card, is this booking still valid? Even when it happened in a situation that should noty have been allowed to occur? Do you wind the clock back, but retain the booking?

    If 2 mintues down the line video becomes available to prove an incorrect decision does everything stop, and the intervening 2 minutes cease to have been of consequence?

    The Argentina game (where the goal is assumed to count) would be fine to review through video because it is a natural break in play, but the result of this is that the advantage is with the defending team (decisions only reviewed when you have conceded).

    Really, its so much less practical than is being assumed (aside from all the arguments about connection and universality above). Goal line censor would maybe work, as would (and no one mentions it) UEFA's 2 extra officials as trialed in the 'Europa League' - and this option is actually recreatable at all levels of the game, and Hackney Marshes (presuming the necessary man power is available).

  11. The thought of video replays depresses me beyond belief. It's so bloody literal - if we have 100% accuracy then we will have 100% ENJOYMENT (the capitalist fantasy of full production if all the obstacles were removed, nu?). The unjust glorious defeat is part of the poetry of sports, and should be defended at all costs.

    Personally, I hate the third umpire in cricket. It's so anticlimactic waiting for the light to come on. It's like waiting for the green light to come on with the sandwich press, except at the end you don't get a toasted ham and cheese.

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  13. zeno144, we're beyond having to use video technology. A simple goal line detector, and a correpsonding device incorpoarted into the ball would suffice. There would be no disruption to the game, and the results would be reflective of what actually happened on the pitch.