Referee or Robocop?

6 Jul

With the news today that ‘goal-line technology’ has been approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in Zurich I thought I’d post this article I wrote for my student newspaper Wessex Scene back in 2010 when FIFA first began warming to systems such as Hawk-eye. Interestingly one of the first matches used to test the technology was the Eastleigh vs AFC Totton Hampshire Senior Cup Final at St. Marys in May.

One of the most hotly contested debates in football since Blackheath left the room in disgust over the removal of hacking, charging and kicking from the game took another twist this week as the worlds governing body, FIFA announced it would begin trials of goal-line technology.

Whilst the news that FIFA has softened its hostile stance towards the use of technology in the game will cheer the many pundits, managers, players and supporters who have long called for the use of technology to aid officials in their decision making the announcement is sure to prove divisive. Another high-profile official, UEFA head and ex-France international Michel Platini, encapsulating the concerns that technology will fundamentally alter the character of the game turning it into “PlayStation football.”

The long-simmering debate previously came to the fore over the summer. Trailing 2-1 to Germany in the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup Frank Lampard scored a goal to level the match. Except the goal was not awarded by match officials who failed to identify that the ball crossed the line.

As the despairing English were quick to point to the injustice of the goal that should have been others were equally speedy in pointing to the injustice of Geoff Hursts 1966 goal which shouldn’t have been. The two incidents are indeed strikingly similar. The ball rattling the crossbar before ricocheting sharply downwards. Both were arguably a turning-point in the game; the moment an existential butterfly was stamped into the ground under a football boot and most importantly in both cases the match officials got it wrong. One crucial difference however, stands out. In 1966 there was no alternative to faith in the judgement of officials with human frailties but in 2010 technology exists to, if not eliminate error then at least banish it to the margins of statistical probability.

Despite other incidents of erring officialdom in the showcase tournament watched by a global TV audience, such as a clearly visible offside goal from Carlos Tevez which ended Mexico’s World Cup dreams, the sports governing bodies maintained their long-term resistance to the use of technology. In the wake of the England-Germany game FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke stated that video technology was “definitely not on the table today.” Part of  FIFAs reasoning for rejection of the technology rests on the impracticality of its application across the whole football spectrum beyond prestigious tournaments to the lower reaches of the game. This view though seems not to take into account the already heaving chasm between elite level football and the grass-roots of the sport.

Whilst football has stuck with its no-tech principles other sports such as Rugby, Tennis and Cricket have pioneered new technology with the use of video replays and the ‘hawk-eye’ system – one of the systems touted as a possible contender for use in goal-line incidents. In these sports however, technology has been far from a panacea; sometimes even causing controversies of its own. Rugby has seen the video referee ruling out tries which are later shown to be legitimate whilst in Tennis the hawk-eye system has been criticised by players including one incident where it failed to register a shot in an Australian open match last year. In Cricket hawk-eye has proved less controversial though its potential to alter the dynamics of the game has been recognised with England’s Kevin Pietersen suggesting a greater incidence of lbw decisions brought about by hawk-eye is forcing batsmen to amend their technique.

Platini’s concerns that the character of football will be altered may therefore not be entirely without foundation. Another reason for opposing the use of technology previously articulated by FIFA president Sepp Blatter is simply that to err is human. This argument is more compelling than it first appears. We must ask ourselves where would the calls for technological intervention end? Even with goal-line technology contentious decisions would still exist, offsides, penalties and, free-kicks. Will referees have to become more like Robocop with multiple angle head-up displays and an army of analysts jabbering in their ear whilst micro-chipped balls and players rattle around a stadium which resembles something from the film Tron?

The sociologist Emile Durkheim once commented; crime cannot be eradicated. In an ultra-polite society the merest of slips will be seen as the most heinous crime. In 50 years time will the pundits be complaining an incorrectly awarded throw-in was the turning-point of the game? Or should we accept that human frailty and doubt are a part of the game?

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