Not up for discussion – goal-line technology

Yesterday’s article FIFA Executive Committee – Sometimes less is more highlighted two recent proposals from FIFA that had made it as far as the International Football Association Board (IFAB). An overview of the process may be useful to anybody not familiar with it. FIFA put forward a list of issues for discussion, with a view to change. The IFAB then analyse these and make proposals (or not) that go back to the FIFA executive committee at their next meeting. More often than not, ratification is something of a ‘rubber stamp’ exercise, so although the process begins and ends with FIFA, the IFAB’s role in formulating rule changes is significant. On the two issues discussed yesterday, the automatic red card in addition to a penalty for ‘last man’ fouls in the 18-yard box has been deferred until next time. So though a change in the rules was expected, it will not come into effect until next season. One presumes the IFAB decided that changing the rules just before a world cup would create confusion amongst officials. On the subject of the offside rule, on which Sepp Blatter had consulted representatives in the world of hockey, there has been no new announcement, so one can only assume the discussion was brief and ended with the word ‘no’. Hopefully this will be left alone and not see the light of day for a long time.

Another issue, which has been in the spotlight many times in the past, is the question of whether goal-line technology should be used to clarify whether or not a ball has crossed the goal-line. It must be stated here that Blatter had gone on record as favouring only technology that was “conclusive and immediate” so any debate amongst the IFAB will have been against this backdrop. This stipulation clearly reflects the fear amongst many that excessive use of technology and television replays would create too many breaks in play. That it did not get the media coverage it normally does is an indication that FIFA’s reluctance to implement change was well known. That the situation remains as it is and the issue is now regarded as dead “for the foreseeable future” is bound to divide opinion amongst supporters. The case for goal-line technology has one single, very powerful argument. Trophies are won and lost, teams survive or are relegated and key results are determined by decisions that turn out to be plainly wrong. For instance, in September 1997, Gerry Taggart’s header for Bolton against Everton bounced a foot over the goal-line before being cleared. With the officials missing the ‘goal’, the game ended scoreless. Bolton were relegated at the end of that season with Everton immediately above them. Suggestions that officials errors ‘even themselves out’ would no doubt have received a snappy reply from their manager Colin Todd at the end of that season. Arsene Wenger is among those who favours a technological revolution: “for me it is difficult to understand for one reason because you want as much justice as possible”. Ian Watmore, chief executive of the FA, also favours change, if only on a trial basis, stating: “the credibility of football is always improved if you get the critical decisions right”. If we’re talking about converting newcomers to the game, he may have a point.

However, such calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The defence of the status quo comprises of several small arguments rather than one highly compelling one. There is the assumption that any use of outside assistance will create breaks in the game that football cannot afford if it wishes to retain its appeal. The extent to which this would happen is argued at some length, and the trial that would give us some indication now appears off-limits. Clearly, the IFAB have decided that no such “conclusive and immediate” solution exists and it may be the case that any change would result in longer matches, even if the breaks were short. Then there is the contentious issue that mistakes are part of the game that they create talking points and thus should remain. Jerome Valcke of the IFAB picked up this argument after the decision was announced. “Technology should not enter the game. We should trust and keep it as a human game…if we start with goal-line technology then any part of the game and pitch will be a potential space where you could put in place technology to see if the ball was in or out, whether or not it was a penalty and then you end up with video replays…let’s keep the game of football as it is”. This starts with the view that a certain amount of human error is acceptable and then goes into another argument. If we introduce goal-line technology, how long before the calls go out “we’ve got goal-line technology so why not TV replays?”. Therein lies the route to a game decided by television and assisted by the referee and not the other way round.

No doubt FIFA will have looked at the use of hawk-eye in the referral system introduced in cricket at the end of 2008. Much-loved umpire and national institution Harold ‘Dickie’ Bird believes the change was akin to fixing something that was not broken. “I would never have brought them in. They are taking the authority away from on-field umpires and it is causing more problems than it is worth.” He adds, “In the old days, controversial decisions became talking points in the bars and clubs but everybody respected the umpire’s authority”. On the sense of injustice that is fuelled by incorrect decisions, Bird is to the point, “Players should accept these things and move on, but all the money that has come into sport has turned their heads”. That Roger Federer has called for Hawk-eye to be thrown out of the major tennis tournaments is an indicator that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the technological fence. Perhaps the biggest losers in this latest development are Cairos, whose marketing director, Oliver Braun is most upset by what he sees as FIFA back-pedalling. “It’s frustrating for us because we have developed the system over so many years and IFAB encouraged us to develop the system. They set up some criteria and said if they were met they would go with the technology”. For the time being, it would appear that Braun and his business may have wasted many hours of skill and endeavour as well as millions of pounds in research and development. It is also apparent that while the rest of us may still debate amongst ourselves about the merits of change, those in charge of the game will not be listening.

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