by Richard Brook
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, is a phrase beloved of managers, pundits and fans, usually in reference to proposed changes to a team’s starting line up or tactics. What of the sport itself though? Our oldest league clubs are approaching their 150th anniversary during which time the sport has existed without the need for major upheaval in terms of the equipment required to play a match. Football is only in danger of becoming “broke” in the financial sense.
Every controversial goal, nowadays, is greeted by a clamour for the introduction of goal line technology, and Chelsea’s second goal in their convincing victory over Tottenham Hotspur, during their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley, was no exception. It is certainly not the fashionable or even realistic view, with even Sepp Blatter tweeting that goal-line technology “must come”, but will football not be the poorer for the introduction of decision assisting technology?
The national and worldwide love affair with football is borne of two interrelated characteristics – simplicity and accessibility. The object of the game is simple to explain even to a child watching their first game: ‘The team wearing blue want to kick it into that net, the team wearing red want to kick it into the other net’. It is accessible because all the equipment genuinely required for a football match is a ball and four jumpers. Anyone can idolise the multimillionaire on the TV, or the semi-pro, plumber by day from the terraces, then go to their local park with a few mates and seek to emulate their heroes.
The introduction of technology will be the surrender of a part of that accessibility. Who, as a child, has not argued about whether the sacred space between pullovers was breached by the ball, or not? From the child who idolised Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Kevin Pressman, let me tell you the attacking side always win the argument.
Of course technology in professional football will never kill the park kick around. That is not the point. The point is that there will be a cut-off point below which the introduction of technology will not apply, and every goal, at every level matters to someone. At what level do we decide that the game just isn’t important enough to get things right? Is it clubs outside the Premier League, or maybe clubs outside the Football League? Wherever you set the level the teams below it will have players that put everything into matches, and supporters to whom their club is one of the most important parts of their lives. The problem is no club deserves to have a season turn on a goal decision that was made incorrectly.
To keep the beautiful game beautifully accessible to all it is vital to create and maintain as level a playing field as possible. Whether it is missing out on a title, qualification for a competition, promotion, or whether it is failure to secure survival in a division, the sense of loss is all the worse if there is a suspicion of unfairness. Where is the pragmatism of ten or 15 years ago? In those days controversial decisions more likely to be met with “These things even themselves out over the course of a season”, not with ever increasing demands for technology.
The sports where technology has been most successfully applied are sports of a somewhat stop-start nature. In cricket, for example, the ball spends a great deal of time dead, as part of the course of the game. This provides a natural opportunity, immediately after the incident in question, to review video footage and reach an accurate conclusion. Football does not always provide this same natural opportunity. Video review would be entirely inappropriate for goal-line decisions, for one simple reason if a goal is being disputed, it’s for one reason: The defending team don’t think the ball is dead. Either the ball has come down from the underside of the bar and spun back into play, or a defender has made a decent stab of clearing the ball off the line.
This raises the question of where you stop the play to make the decision. If you stopped it at the point of the decision requiring review, and it transpires the ball did not cross the line, then you rob the defending side the chance of a counter attack. On the other hand if you allow play to continue to allow a counter attack to develop, from which the defending side score, but it is shown that the earlier disputed goal by the attacking side should have stood, you end up having to disallow one goal, award another, and calculate how much time was wasted allowing play to continue, so it can be added on as stoppage time. With the President of FIFA openly backing it, it has to be assumed that goal line technology is now a complete inevitability, hopefully it will be introduced in a manner that delivers an instant decision that is as close as possible to being 100% accurate, for example a tracking chip inserted into the ball.
It is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy with the calls for goal line technology, after all every England fan will remember Frank Lampard’s effort against Germany that was incredulously ruled out during the 2010 World Cup. This sympathy is heightened with the sums of money being bandied around in the upper echelons of the modern game, and the additional pressures that accompany it. The concern would be that once technology was introduced it would be used for a wider range of decisions. Imagine the stoppage time that would be generated if officials were constantly reviewing offside calls, both by the review itself, but also once again potentially by the point at which you stop the play. If you stop to review an offside call while the attacking team is still going you deny them a goal scoring opportunity. If you allow play to continue you run the risk of the defending team winning the ball back and keeping it in play for another couple of minutes, before you decide it should have been a free kick all along. Even if we could rule out any debates about goal line incidents and offside decisions, there is a myriad of other potential controversies, waiting to become season defining moments.
Aside from the points set out above, it is important to remember that football is a game of human error. The quest for perfection is peculiar to officiating. It is the last thing we would want from the players. If no player ever made a mistake we would be watching tedious 0-0 draws ever week as every perfect shot was kept at bay with a perfect save. Referees and linesmen are not setting out to ruin matches they’re making honest decisions, some will be right some will be wrong. You hope the higher up the footballing pyramid you are the better the officials will be. They are under greater scrutiny than ever due to improvements in television coverage. In such regards they’re no that different to the players. There is one significant difference however; no-one goes to a game, or tunes in on the television, to support the referee.
Lastly let us not forget that a particular debatable goal line decision played a big part in the England football team’s greatest ever success. God bless Tofik Bakhramov, the famous “Russian” linesman from 1966.