February 2013
Fair Play
Don’t Fear The Future Of Football


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The sport’s top officials may think bad calls are just another fun part of the game but to the players, coaches and fans they’re no laughing matter. it’s time to follow other sports in embracing video technology to make the world’s favorite game better

By Zahi Sahli

U EFA president Michel Platini thinks bad calls and ’injustices’ are a core part of football’s popularity. Players, coaches and fans of clubs that miss out on trophies because a referee blew a call must think otherwise.

Chelsea’s fans were having anything but fun as they watched referee Mark Clattenburg incorrectly brandish a second yellow card to send off Fernando Torres and then fail to rule out the winning goal by Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez despite the fact that the Mexican striker was in an offside position.

Man Utd’s 3-2 win over Chelsea was hardly the only match filled with errors by referees, who starred in the first quarter of this season - for all the wrong reasons. From Juventus’ clearly offside first-minute goal against Inter and the referee’s dubious decision to award Inter’s striker Diego Milito a spot kick to Jordi Alba’s goal scored from an offside position to seal a 3-1 win for Barcelona against Celta Vigo and Real Madrid’s penalty against Levante for a tackle that was obviously outside the box, referees showed clearly why the game needs to follow the world’s other top sports in embracing technology to enhance fair play.

It comes as little surprise that referees made a series of high-profile blunders. Anyone can see that there’s a need to integrate video technology into the game and allow referees to make use of other modern techniques.

So what’s stopping football’s governing body from incorporating instant-replay into the game?

Platini suggests allowing referees to get help from replays would eliminate the human factor - and its fallibility - from the world’s most popular sport, diminishing demand. ’Football has also based its popularity on injustices,’ Platini said, oddly adding that fans take pleasure in recalling those injustices while downing a post-game pint in bars.

Sepp Blatter, president of the international governing body FIFA, also opposes adding instant replays but argues it would slow down the pace of the game, while others suggest they would undermine the authority of referees.

Getting the referee out of the pitch would be my ideal scenario - and I think players who frequently get their passes intercepted by the official would agree - but the first step would be to give the man with the whistle some of the help he may need to make close calls.

Many other sports have already wholeheartedly embraced video technology and proved its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.

The National Football League in the US has allowed officials to use video technology under a set of rules that have neither undermined the presence of referees nor impaired the entertainment value of the game.

Before the last two minutes of each half, coaches are allowed twice per game to challenge an official’s call before a new play begins by tossing a red flag on the field. An official replay assistant can also initiate a review during the last two minutes and in overtime, with no limit as to how many replays he can request.

With dozens of cameras in football stadiums providing replays from all angles to the audience, it’s a surprise that referees have not yet been granted permission to use that same technology to get their decisions right.

Not only do they make every decision unquestionable, such rules may also make the game more compelling to viewers. The anticipation of the replay and the final call will heighten emotions, and the added suspense will only make the crowd more colorful than ever - as is the case when tennis fans whoop during a line review initiated by a player.

The most important outcome, though, is that referees will finally be protected from the public outcry that follows every time they make an error in a decisive game.

Much has been said by losing sides accusing referees of accepting bribes to change a game’s outcomes. Even when probes prove them innocent, referees receive plenty of criticism and even death threats, as happened when Tom Henning Øvrebø officiated the 2009 Champions League semi-final second leg between Barcelona and Chelsea.

Campaigns urging players and fans to ’respect’ referees - similar to the one launched by England’s football association - are not going to silence players and critics when a referee makes a controversial call.

At the end of last season, Arsenal manager and long-time advocate of video technology Arsene Wenger said he believes instant replays will give referees more credit and authority. He also dismisses Blatter’s fears that technological interventions would hamper the flow of the game.

’It would not stop the game,’ he said. ’It would sometimes give a bigger flow to the game. Why? Because if I am a linesman and an offside decision is a 50-50 I’m tempted to stop the game. If I know I have a video behind me I am tempted to let it go if I’m convinced it is a real 50-50 and you could improve the flow of the game and check after.’

With times evolving, the current team of five clueless referees - similar in their respect-demanding attitude to elementary school teachers and as successful in implementing peace and justice as the United Nations - needs to become part of the football museum.

With computer-generated accuracy possible, referees should get out of the pitch and sit in front of screens, making the calls from the control room.

Instead, there are five imperfect referees who get all the shame and blame for the frequent errors they naturally commit.

When refereeing calls become consistently correct, losing sides would spare the public from anti-refereeing rants - and the focus will be back on the sport itself, where it belongs.


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