Technology in football: Is it time to help referees out?

5 Jun 2015

Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Photo via Shutterstock

Football has been in the news a bit this week. Haven’t you noticed? FBI arrests, sham elections, resignations, tales of bribery – it’s a dramatic time for the game with, almost inevitably, Ireland at the centre of the whole thing.

Whatever you might think about FIFA’s backhand dealings with John Delaney and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), if you’re a fan at all of the beautiful game you’ll be looking forward to forgetting that its governing body has been a toxic cesspool of corruptions for years now and, for 90 minutes at least, enjoy tomorrow’s Champions League Final and the showdown between Barcelona and Juventus.

It should be an intriguing game. On one hand you have Barca, and the terrifying attacking threat of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. If the trio had a euro for every goal they’d scored this season, they’d have €120 – a truly staggering statistic. On the other hand you have Juventus. Though ‘The Old Lady’ has dominated the domestic game in Italy for years now, its journey to the final has still taken everyone by surprise. Without the financial clout of Barca, most of the side is made up of ageing greats or players that have been cannily snapped up on free transfers. In football terms, this is David versus Goliath stuff. Barcelona should destroy Juventus, but there are no guarantees. That’s part of the fun.

What is almost certainly guaranteed, however, is that there will be a controversial incident. There’s always a controversial incident. A dodgy penalty decision, a soft red card, an incorrect offside rule… poor quality refereeing has been a scourge on the game for years. In truth, the problems have likely always been there. But with dozens and dozens of cameras recording each and every match these days, there’s nowhere for the officials to hide. Vines of their awful decisions go around the world in seconds. Pundits, from the comfort of their studios, vilify them remorsely. Fans curse them to the rafters. How these refs get out of bed on a Saturday morning, I do not know.

The great debate

It’s not all the men in black’s fault though. Refereeing is hella tough. But could authorities be doing much more to assist them? Anyone with even the most casual interest in football will know there’s a furious debate going on right now, and it’s not the argument on whether Ronaldo or Messi is the better player, if Raheem Sterling is worth paying in excess of stg£140,000 a week, or whether Martin O’Neill should finally drop Robbie Keane. I’m talking about the great debate on what technology can do for football.

The discussion comes up every time we see a controversial incident (which is basically every week): Can football’s authorities do what many other sports have done and help out referees by implementing technology that has long been in existence? For some, it’s a no-brainer. For others, particularly those in senior footballing positions it seems, it’s a non-runner. Advocates of using technology have been met with resistance almost every step of the way, particularly from the villainous FIFA itself.

The Dutch FA (KNVB), for example, had wanted to trial a system in which a video official would be at its games, watching replays and advising the referee on key decisions via a headset. But in February the International Football Association Board (IFAB), an organisation that FIFA maintains a stranglehold on, ruled that trials during competitive matches should be pushed back at least 12 months.

“It’s a question of making the biggest decision ever in the way football is played,” said FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke at the time (for your information, Valcke is reportedly suspected of making key payments in the current bribery scandal). “It needs a lot of discussion, in terms of what we are looking at. We talked about the fact if the referee relies on information he is getting [from the video referee], is there a risk that the referees become not as strong as they are today because they will always ask for confirmation of any decision in the course of the game?”

A big problem for those pushing for reforms is that ‘technology’ is currently used as a bit of catch-all. Because so few systems have been tested, particularly relating to video footage being reviewed, no-one is really sure what its introduction would exactly mean, which allows worst-case-scenario theories to be presented. The most plausible argument against technology is that it would significantly slow down the game. For example, if a ref was to stop a match and run off the field to check a monitor every five minutes, it would surely grate on spectators. It’s something former Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is wary of.

“Technology will advance the game, I suppose, but you can’t have too many things because then it takes a lot of power away from the referees, at which case it becomes a bit of a shambles because the game is stop-start, stop-start and you cannot have that,” the Scot told New York radio station SiriusXM FC earlier this year.

The arguments against technology

Additionally, FIFA has argued that all levels of the game must be played in the same manner. So World Cup matches must be the exact same experience for players as a Sunday league game, where technology is not an option due to budget constraints. “The game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world,” outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said. “If you are coaching a group of teenagers in any small town around the world, they will be playing with the same rules as the professional players they see on TV.”

But upon examination, this argument doesn’t seem to hold much weight. Let’s pretend there already isn’t a myriad of differences between top-end football and lower-league kickabouts. If referees in a hypothetical Division A and hypothetical Division B are getting around 70pc of decisions correct, is it right not to give the officials in Division A the tools to get 95pc of decisions correct just to ensure that the incompetency is kept equal? What’s right is right, after all.

As alluded to by Valcke, FIFA also argues that technology would undermine the authority of officials. But in fact the exact opposite is happening. The relevant tech is everywhere now. Images of every single incident are on Twitter within seconds and, therefore, accessible to everyone in the stadium with a smartphone. The only person who can’t draw upon these images is the man who may need them the most. It’s as if the game is being played in a giant jar to keep the 22 players and team of officials enclosed.

There was a bizarre moment in World Cup 2010 when in Argentina’s last-16 match against Mexico, striker Carlos Tevez scored to put Argentina 1-0 up while clearly in an offside position. Although against FIFA rules, the big screens inside the Soccer City stadium in South Africa showed replays of Tevez’s clear infringement. The goal stood, however, despite every person inside the stadium, including the Mexican players, knowing it to be the wrong decision. The officials had, in all likelihood, seen the replays themselves, but probably feared repercussions if they allowed the external factor to alter their original, if incorrect, call. It was a farce. Argentina subsequently won the match 3–1. BBC pundit Alan Hanson said after the game: “Before today I was not an advocate of technology in football, but now I am a convert.”

When it works

The one area where technology has been implemented in football these past few years has actually been a great success. After years of discussions, England’s Premier League and FIFA finally yielded and allowed goal-line technology to eliminate onfield debate as to whether or not the ball has crossed the line or not. The system was deployed at the 2014 World Cup and is now being used in the Premier League.

In those cases, however, the decision is pretty cut and dry: the ball has or has not crossed the line. In terms of penalty decisions, red cards etc.., much is left to interpretation. Armchair pundits will argue for hours over these decisions, regardless of how many replays from multiple angles they see. Even with all the technology in the world, human error is something football fans will always have to live with.

So there’s knots to be undone and theories to be tested before tech can be fully rolled out. With a huge upheaval at FIFA expected, the chances for some new innovative techniques, particularly relating to video reviewing, to ensure that more better quality decisions are made on the pitch, are likely to improve.

It’s been a rocky week for the sport, and for our own football association. But funny enough, we wouldn’t be talking about FIFA’s payment to the FAI if during the infamous France-Ireland match in 2009 if video technology had allowed the referee to disallow the Thierry Henry handball goal. The scale of the international controversy that one incident has caused is surely an indication that football needs to do everything it can to make sure these decisions are made correctly.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic