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Month February 2014

Video replays and impeccable refs. Football’s new era?

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Ok, so it might not be quite as clear cut as the headline suggests, but you can’t blame a bloke for trying to wrestle your interest.

On March 1st, the International FA Board gathers in Zurich for their annual meeting and for once, it’ll be an item under ’Any Other Business’ that will get media juices flowing like no other. ‘Video replays for match officials’ is to be debated by a board made up of representatives from FIFA and the four British associations and frankly, it’s not before time.

As someone involved in sport and football for most if his life, I have to admit it’s become increasingly difficult to communicate a convincing reason to non-football mates (yes, they do exist) for why football lags way-behind the likes of rugby when it comes to the use of video technology. The current 6 Nations Championship is once again proving to be more entertaining for the interjections of the Video Ref – and the final result is all the more accurate because of it. So why not in football?

I’ve always argued that football is a much more fluid game and it’s more difficult to find the right moment to consult the screens. For example, picture this. There are 70,000 partisan supporters roaring on the home team in a vociferous local derby. Let’s call them Manchester United.

The ‘noisy neighbours’ are on the attack but their star striker is tackled on the edge of the box. ‘No foul’ says the ref and play continues. The team we shall call ‘Manchester United’ goes straight up the other end and, without the ball going out of play, they score. Only for the video ref to rule that the challenge 15 seconds ago WAS a foul so it’s actually a free kick on the edge of the box at the other end.

Cue mayhem. Why bother banning alcohol in the stands if you’re going to give ‘em replays?

I’m sure some of you will be suggesting that the video ref would only make a judgement call if asked by the match referee, as is the case in rugby. It’s a valid point. Of course the referee cannot be compromised by being unilaterally over ruled through unsolicited judgement. BUT…

When the titles roll on the first highlights programme of the weekend and a tackle that the video referee would surely have called as a foul is shown to have gone unpunished, do we really think the pundits will be told to tone down their comments? We all know the answer to that one because it doesn’t happen now and whether we like it or not, football, its officials and its players are under more scrutiny than in any other sport.

My point is that in football it will undoubtedly be harder to strike the right balance between letting a game flow and using technology for the overall good, but I do concede that it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Zurich’s nod towards ‘any other business’ next month isn’t, of course, going to proffer a definitive outcome on the day, but it will undoubtedly open the floodgates for debate. When that happens, the power of modern day communication will mean the fans, the press and anyone in between will not let go until they’ve shaken out a decision they can dissect at leisure. It had better be the right one.

The UEFA President, Michel Platini, has already warned that the advent of goal line technology was merely the first step towards the inevitable and I’m sure he’ll take no pleasure in telling everybody at some point that he was right. There’s a lot of water to flow under this particular ‘pont’ before Monsieur Platini can remind us of his powers but the trickle will start in Zurich  when the administrators who will no doubt be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, open up a very large can of worms.

Surely video replays have got to be a part of the future? Well perhaps there’s an argument that suggests that when even the TV pundits can’t agree after seeing a tackle from every conceivable angle, there’s little hope for one person stuck in a sweaty cubicle during the heat of battle.

Football’s on-pitch decision making is generally a much more subjective art than in rugby or cricket and I genuinely don’t envy those who’ll make the ultimate decision on where to draw the line for video replays. An unstoppable mix of the power of ‘progress’ and the public’s perception that utopia is just around the corner, is destined to make it happen, but if they don’t get it right, there will still be weekend arguments down the pub – it’s just that they’ll be a little more complicated.