Why are people so afraid of instant video replays in football?

The move to keep Rob Styles and Ian Gosling (the assistant referee who failed to spot Fulham’s equalizer against Middlesbrough) out of the next weekend’s fixtures is a damage-limitation exercise and does nothing to cure the real problem.

Punishing Styles and Gosling does not prevent such incidents from happening in the future – it gives them a good kick up the backside and warns other refs, but conversely it also puts over-stressed referees under more pressure and gives players and managers license to have a go at referees if they disagree with decisions.

It’s a public-appeasing gesture, like throwing a gladiator to be slaughtered to the lions so that the hordes can cheer and hopefully be distracted from the harsh reality that the soldiers are raping their mothers and sisters at will.

Thanks to goal line technology under testing at Reading (expected to be presented to Fifa at the end of this year and trialled from the 2008/2009 season – at a cost of 50k pounds per ground), incidents like Healy’s disallowed goal will hopefully disappear from football. However, issues like that Malouda penalty still remain and to solve them the Premier League and Fifa in general need to take a good hard look at the situation and find a solution that minimizes errors.

Why are people so afraid of instant video replays in football?

It’s a fair question, I think, because every time video technology is discussed with reference to football, especially post-match reviews or in-game reviews where the referee does not have a close and clear view of an incident, there is a vocal segment who rise up in arms against the use of video replays.

The arguments presented usually take one of the following tracks:

  • It’s not traditional and we should stick to the spirit of football.

    Football is about finding out which team is better on a given day – and incorrect decisions have an unfair impact on the final result and give an inaccurate representation of the ‘difference’ between the two teams. Often these decisions can change games, or change results completely.

  • Replays will take too much time and interrupt the flow of the game

    In some situations replays may hold up play; in others they can easily be used while there is a genuine hold up in play (a player is down, the ball is out of play, etc). The key here is to find a way to make it work so that the ‘flow’ can be maintained as much as possible, not reject solutions out of hand just because you don’t like change.

  • Video replays are often inconclusive

    This is similar to the previous argument – yes, in some cases video replays are inconclusive but in many cases they give a better insight into what happened instead of the guess the referee has to make on the spot. Once again, the key is to make things work better and minimize errors, and video replays give us a way to do that. We’ve already established beyond a shadow of a doubt (through painful experience) that referees are not going to get it right all the time. How about we give them some help?

  • The referee should make the decisions

    Yes, the ref should make the decisions. That’s his job. But the ref cannot make the right call on all decisions because sometimes he doesn’t have enough time, sometimes he doesn’t have the right view and sometimes he’s just wrong. We already have assistant referees there to help the referee make the right decisions. It has helped referees make a lot of correct calls. Why can’t we do the same again and give the referees more assistance, so that they get more decisions right?

People are afraid of change. People are also fucking lazy. The combination means that not only do people claim that video replays are against the spirit of the game (and wrong decisions are ‘in spirit’?), they also hold up their hands and say that they have no idea how to make video replays work realistically.

It’s a fucking disgrace that every weekend fans and players have to put up with things that can easily be solved, 90% of the time, by using some technology and some brainpower.

The reason why we’re still suffering

I think one major reason why Fifa or the Premier League have done very little about this issue is because it is the referees who bear the brunt of the anger from fans, players and managers. Here’s a quick comparison for you:

Cristiano Ronaldo misses an open goal from 10 feet away while facing the goal and standing in the center, and manages to somehow spoon it over the top. Or take Tomas Rosicky’s miss from last season. Or that one by Fabregas. There are plenty of chances like these that come around, right?

How many of these players have been consigned to the bench in the next game because of them missing open goals?

In contrast, take Graham Poll or Rob Styles. Reliable referees most of the time, both have committed big, headline-grabbing mistakes. Both were pulled off the refereeing roster, with Poll being denied a role in the second half of the World Cup and Styles given the weekend off.

Referees are easy targets for the media and for the people involved in the game, and so while everyone has a go at Styles and people accuse him of being a Chelsea fan or playing for the camera, no one talks about the real issue, the fact that referees are judged for their mistakes, not for their correct decisions, and that it is impossible for a referee to get all decisions right because he does not have enough resources available to him.

The refs are unfairly criticised

There’s this notion in the media that referees play for the cameras, that they love to hog the limelight. Whether refs are attention-seekers or not does not affect their decision-making – it may have an impact on how they talk to the press or how they talk to the players on the pitch, but when it comes to making the right calls, does it sound reasonable to you that a referee would give 3 yellow cards because he was feeling left out?

Or give a penalty where there was none because he wanted the attention?

Yes, there are biased referees, but it’s a bit hypocritical to call Styles biased against Liverpool or for Chelsea after seeing some of the yellow cards handed out to both sides (the first yellow card, given to Essien for a challenge on Arbeola where the Liverpool player played for the fouled and jumped over Essien on to the ground is a good example).

Rob Styles made a mistake, and when Liverpool players vehemently protested he turned to his experience and training and did what all refs do when players contest their decisions – stick to his guns.

And therein lies the biggest problem in football – the myth that referees are always right, even if they are wrong.

While the behavior of players towards referees is questionable, the fact remains that there should be room in football matches for referees to take back their decisions if they find out that they are wrong. Of course, you cannot rely on the players who are going to argue their own side, so the ref needs the help from his assistants.

A template to fix refereeing mistakes

So how could Styles have fixed the Malouda penalty incident? The moment a penalty was given, the fifth official in charge of video replays (hypothetically speaking, of course) would have played that incident back and made a decision on the spot and conveyed it to the referee via radio. How long would all this have taken?

I saw the whole thing on TV and we had the time to see the replays on TV a couple of times before Lampard lined up to take the penalty. I’m going to guess that the assistant ref would have needed one replay to tell Styles that “hey, Malouda wasn’t fouled, what are you doing?” and then Styles could take the decision back based on advice from his assistants and give a goal-kick (or a drop ball outside Liverpool’s penalty area) instead.

What problems would something like this cause? Player reactions, mostly. But that’s a different story, and yes, there is a serious need for well-defined regulations for players that deal with abusive behavior towards referees, with diving and with red and yellow card offenses.

But apart from player reactions, what would be the outcome of such a system? The game would go on, the referee would have had a chance to correct his mistake and the contest would not have been ruined.

Some might say that “this is not football”.

No one person has any authority on what football is like, and if someone advocates a version of football that actively refuses to fix such mistakes then not only do they sound ridiculous, they are also hurting the game.

Comments are welcome.

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