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Soccer Is Almost Ready To Adopt Video Refereeing

Decision making technology is approaching overdue implementation

5May

In June 2010, England were up against the ropes in Bloemfontein. Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had rocked the English defence to give Germany a comfortable lead before a Matthew Upson header gave The Three Lions a lifeline. In the 38th minute, Frank Lampard’s audacious chip looked to have levelled the game, hitting the underside of Manuel Neuer’s crossbar, crossing the line, then bouncing out of goal thanks to backspin. As Fabio Capello and England celebrated, though, Germany kept playing, the referee waved play on and the 2010 World Cup’s biggest controversy was born.

England would go on to lose the game 4-1 - Germany outclassed Capello’s side at times and Müller’s brace ended the tie. You’d be hard-pressed, though, to find an fan that doesn’t see the famous ‘ghost goal’ as a turning point in the fixture. Fast forward just a handful of years and goal-line technology is now used in all of Europe’s top leagues - bar La Liga - and such refereeing catastrophes have disappeared. In fact, the technology is already a well-accepted part of the game, and the notion of the ball crossing the line and being ignored is ludicrous. Human error in game-changing offside calls, penalty decisions and red cards will one day seem just as dated; the technology is there, it’s time world football caught up.

Detractors argue that the human element in soccer’s decision making is part of what makes the sport so special. Indeed, a poor refereeing decision is a topic of debate for pundits and pub regulars alike, and the injustice felt at the wrong end of a poor decision is matched by the illicit elation of the beneficiary. It will be a shame to lose such a hotly contested topic after almost every match day but, when the stakes are considered, it’s a small price to pay for correct decision-making.

And current FIFA president Gianni Infantino has diverted from Sepp Blatter’s apparent aversion to change, announcing that the testing of video technology to aid referees in-game will begin no later than the 2017-18 season. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that sets the laws of the game, approved a two-year trial period, according to Sky Sports. The decision is a historic one, but the implementation of video technology is subject to rigorous testing and a consensus regarding the highly protected flow of the game, a point IFAB has been extremely vocal on.

In the interest of keeping football’s much lauded tempo and flow, video technology is only being put forward for use in ‘game-changing’ decisions only - red cards, offside goals, penalty decisions and cases of mistaken identity. The argument comes back to that of goal-line technology - such important decisions can have huge implications not just competitively but also financially, and surely the suggested one minute from whistle to whistle is a worthwhile time period. Decisions can typically be made within 20 seconds, and the final 40 seconds is for communication to the referee. The flow of the game is regularly interrupted for short periods by substitutions and injuries, and the occasional penalty decision will not be enough to slow the game down.

Currently, it is unclear not just whether the technology will reach implementation, but also which levels of football the technology will apply to. Soccer has long been proud of its general homogeneity whether played at Old Trafford or with jumpers for goalposts, and there is currently no suggestion that the lower tiers of soccer will see such technology. Again, this argument is something of a red herring; no one considers professional cricket wildly detached from its grass roots counterpart simply because Hawk-eye is only available at the top. Soccer will still be accessible to all even if Mike Dean or Mark Geiger can stop play at the highest level to check a penalty decision.

The MLS is perhaps the league closest to full implementation. MLS commissioner Don Garber has been vocal in his support of video replays since 2014, and hinted last year that the technology may be used in MLS competition before too long. ‘We spoke to the board [of governors] about how instant replay might work. We think it can work, we’d love to see it work,’ he said on the half-time show of last year’s MLS All-Star Game. ‘We’ve got to talk to US Soccer, we’ve got to talk to Fifa, we’ve got to make sure the technology works, but you should know that MLS is a supporter of the idea.’ The MLS has been something of a pioneer, less constrained by tradition than its European counterparts. The MLS has been ‘quietly running trials for the past two seasons’, according to the Guardian, and proper implementation could serve as an example to those in Europe dragging their feet. 

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