Issue The Same Rules Should Apply for Every Football Match

As told by Paul Firth

I don’t suppose it’s very often that one contributor to BfB takes as his title a quote from the previous contribution but I can’t let Jason’s statement rest unchallenged. I agree with him that there should be a sensible debate about technology, but BfB has not, in my view, had that debate yet. A debate has two sides; the pros and the cons. When you’ve read both, then make up your mind.

Why should football have the same rules for every game, in the sense that Jason argues? Rugby doesn’t. Cricket doesn’t. Tennis doesn’t. Not in Jason’s sense. In all those sports games at the top level have technology; games at any other level don’t. I have watched days of first class cricket at Headingley without a replay in sight. Some of those l.b.w’s looked iffy from my seat, but I never will know what I might have seen had Hawkeye been around. I can’t possibly say the umpire got it wrong.

The best example of all is Super League. Most weekends seven games are played. Two have technology, because they are shown live on television. The other five have two additional officials unaided by cameras, replays or anything other than their own senses. Is there anything wrong with those five games? They may be less than perfect, but does that matter? Go down one division to the Championship and most weeks there will be one game live on television with the technology. Does that make the other Championship games any less fair?

‘Fair’ in this context surely means nothing more than ‘between the two teams’. How is it any less fair for the ten Super League teams this weekend who were not on TV? We can all say how important it was that City were denied a goal at Christie Park, but how many of us can be sure – yes, sure – that it was a goal? And would we have been equally adamant if Morecambe had been attacking that goal? We may well believe that the assistant referee made a mistake, but where’s the proof?

And therein lies the heart of this debate. Sometimes there is the proof. Sometimes the technology provides the proof. Sometimes even the technology doesn’t provide the proof. By and large we are talking about what TV cameras, sometimes with additional gizmos, can show. (Yes, there are other technologies, but one debate at a time.) TV cameras, suitably stationed, are fine at line decisions. They can be very good at showing other things, but may not necessarily be conclusive. Even technology has room for the benefit of the doubt.

The point surely is what happens when the technology is there, not what happens when it isn’t. This is my real bone of contention with FIFA. (Just as an aside, try typing Blatter into a spell-check and see what options you get!) FIFA, the Champions League, the Premier League and all the top football competitions rely on the cameras being there. They get their money from the TV companies and from the sponsors who want to see their adverts shown across the world. In these competitions the paying public contribute a small fraction of the income. So FIFA and the rest invite the cameras in for their own non-sporting reasons.

But what they don’t like is the way the cameras are used. Oh gosh, they have replays from different angles! They have slow motion! They even have virtual replays that look like Subbuteo players and can show you the referee’s view! How dare they?? Don’t they know this can make the referees look silly?

But no one in Geneva will say any of that. Instead they will have us believe this tale about ‘all or nothing’. They will tell us replays will slow down this quick moving game that is top class football. (Here’s another argument that those horrid technophiles have destroyed. Even at home with my Sky+ remote I can nip back to when a free kick was awarded. There will be a time in minutes in seconds. I can then fast forward to when the ball was next in play and time the delay. Try it with any free kick within shooting distance and you’ll average pretty near one minute.) They will tell us it would be too costly, without actually admitting that this assumes they have won their ‘all or nothing’ argument. And, if all else fails, they will tell us it’s a human game where referees must have the same freedom as players to make their mistakes. I happen to agree with that last one, but with one caveat.

Referees should be allowed to make their own mistakes, otherwise they would not be human. But why can’t they be allowed to correct them? Within hours of the World Cup farce I watched an excellent test match umpire correct one of his own mistakes. Does any one of those players think any the worse of that umpire? It was a very human error. Maybe if he keeps repeating the same mistake, the players might take against him before he gave it up or got dropped. But that’s no different for players. Make enough mistakes and you’re sitting in the stand.

The question for football is whether the authorities are prepared to allow their referees to make mistakes that the technology has shown across the continent or across the world, to deny those same referees the chance to correct their mistakes and then to let the poor officials carry the can. If you don’t buy the ‘all or nothing’ argument – and I don’t – then you have to deal with the presence of the cameras and the effect it already has on the fans and how they see the mistakes. All the rest are just excuses.

If you want a debating point, try this. When there is no technology, whether it be at Valley Parade or the Dog and Duck, what’s the problem? It’s all a matter of opinion. Where there is technology, there’s a potential problem. Other sports have solved it in different ways. Rugby League allows the referee to say ‘I’m not sure and I want another referee of the same status to check this with the benefit of the available technology’. The referee is neither surrounded by angry players nor accused of being short-sighted or anything else. Maybe football won’t allow referees to be seen to be ‘not sure’. Cricket had a good solution, especially for line calls, until it took a leaf out of tennis’ book and brought in player referrals. No, don’t go that way. Just let the referee have the strength to say ‘let’s check that’.

But let’s use what there is when it’s there. We have allowed all sorts of technology into football. If we hadn’t, Messi would be wearing boots like Jimmy Spiers wore and aiming at a goal without a net and with a length of tape running between two posts. Good job Sepp Blatter wasn’t around a hundred years ago. Or was he?