The Real Cost of Technology in Football

In Sport on October 10, 2011 at 6:33 PM

The image of an airborne Manuel Neuer, looking back despairingly at the ball, clearly over the line from Frank Lampard’s disallowed lob, is one that still burns the retinas of millions of Englishmen, and has been cited by many as a reason for the introduction of video technology in football.

Lampard's phantom goal

Lampard’s phantom goal

For it was verified to the millions watching mere seconds later that the ball landed nearly a metre over the line, and if it had been given it may have lead to a very different result in what was a huge game (the 2010 World Cup Second Round).

Despite the furore from England– and elsewhere – FIFA have budged little in their reluctance to adopt technology in football. They prevaricate and make vague gestures towards the use of technology, with trial periods in various youth tournaments, but generally speaking they are fairly stoic on the issue, especially anything more than goal-line technology.

To summarise, their arguments against technology are as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Ultimately decisions will always be made by referees (and should be).
  2. They aim to improve the quality of refereeing.
  3. Technology is costly (and they have advised prospective manufacturers against making probably unused technology).
  4. That there is a slippery slope to all decisions being referred to technology.
  5. ‘Football is a dynamic game that cannot be stopped in order to review a decision’.
  6. That the ‘simplicity’ and ‘universality’ of football is one of its main appeals and would be damaged by the introduction of technology: ‘the game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world’.
  7. ‘That fans love to debate controversial incidents in a game’.

For this, they are often called stubborn, short-sighted dinosaurs, which there is undoubtedly much evidence for in many other aspects of their premiership of the beautiful game. See for one Sepp Blatter’s comments on women’s football: ‘(they should) wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts… to create a more female aesthetic.’

Much of this very righteous, at least superficially logical anger extends to the technology debate, with many claiming things such as FIFA’s position being ‘simply unacceptable’ and an ‘affront to common sense’, as this sports journalist does.

Indeed, I generally have little time for FIFA – alike nearly all football fans it seems. Especially in light of the recent decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and the recent corruption allegations against Jack Warner (among others). But, their reluctant stance on the technology is credible, however ‘prehistoric’. Hear me out, guys….

Firstly, from a pragmatic perspective, how would it be implemented? Granted, in tennis, rugby and cricket technology is widely regarded as a great success. But the big difference between these sports and football is that they are much more stop-start than football, with natural stoppages in which technology can be referred to. For example, a very tight line call on a ‘winner’ in tennis. If it is called ‘out’ and it is correctly challenged it is a winner and a point to the ball-striker; incorrectly challenged and it is a point to the non-striker. Even in this situation, there are often debates about how to restart the point if a ball is a ball called ‘out’ is correctly challenged, with players claiming “I would have got there…” In football, the situation would only be multiplied by ten for it is a much more flowing game.

Mere seconds after a crucial incident the other team can easily score. If foul is committed but not given, then a goal scored, and in the natural stoppage for the goal, the incident is challenged and then indeed found to be a foul, how would play restart? The obvious option would be to disallow the goal, but this seems a tad harsh. But the other option – allow the goal and the free kick/penalty – is illogical because play should surely return as it was when the tackle occurred. Also, if players are found to be wrongly deemed offside, how exactly does one restore the balance of the game; try to manufacture a situation in which all 22 players and balls are moving in the exact same positions and speeds as they were when the pass to the ‘offside’ player was delivered?! These are of course extreme examples, and many people are only campaigning for goal-line technology, to which these objections wouldn’t apply so much. However, these incidents are perfectly plausible, and representative of many other similar possible incidents.

There are also reasonable objections centring on the idea that part of football’s beauty is its accessibility; that it can be played as much by Premiership playboys as those in LDC tying socks together for balls, and that this appeal would be somewhat negated by technology. But my biggest issue with technology is that it strikes at the heart of what makes football… football.

The great irony about this is that journalists who campaign for technology (and those who don’t) depend on the opprobrium largely engendered by human refereeing decisions. If there weren’t so many ‘travesties of justice’ (more later) in football, there would be little to no need for articles such as the aforementioned (which the writer presumably wrote in view of payment and/or career progression). And, indeed, match reports would be less interesting to readers were it not for controversy that ref’s decisions so often generate.

Similarly, it is even more nonsensical for television pundits to complain about video technology. For if decisions were made with such cold, correct calculation during matches people probably wouldn’t be so inclined to tune to see crucial decisions pored over in minute detail with the wonderful benefits of hindsight, artificially generated lines (for offsides), super slo-mo and approximately 117 different camera angles. And thus, by simple law of supply and demand, chances for them to take their place on the MoTD sofa or Sky Sports box would dry up…..

This even applies largely to the average lad down the pub (I’d like to say I can somewhat speak for both camps in my current state of trainee ‘hack’-dom). I, like any typical bloke in this country, was – even still am – outraged by the decision not to award Lampard’s goalagainst Germany. What no one can deny though is the papers it sold, coverage it ensured and pints it sold (indirectly). Even less directly, but no less importantly, it will only serve to stoke the fires of the great rivalry between England and Germany. Glenn Hoddle may even say it is some sort of harsh karmic retribution for the ‘Russian Linesman’ episode in ’66.

Another great case is the England/Argentina rivalry, which has intensified no end with the ‘Hand of God’ – for my money the biggest act of trickery/cheating in sport. Generally speaking, English people saw it as a filthy piece of cheating, even down to ‘filthy’, ‘uncivilised’ people, whilst Argentines saw it as a brilliant, heroic act of conmanship, even as a quasi-political statement against ‘tyrannical imperialists’. (This game was played during Thatcher’s reign and only four years after the Falklands War).

Top flight football so much resembles soap opera now, anyway. I love football as much as the next person, but it is easy to forget there are far more real travesties of justice in the world than an official – fallible yet honest – failing to see that a piece of leather actually was just about shepherded into an outside cupboard by a millionaire (to shoehorn in a brilliant Bill Bailey quote). Granted, it can be harsh, especially if a decision results in relegation or cup final loss, but luck usually averages out over the course of a few years, let alone eternity. See Geoff Hurst’s goal and Lampard’s non-goal.

Outrage, mockery, pontification, arguments….‘banter’ are all part and parcel of the game, especially in Britain. That is the appeal, romance, if you will, of football.  You just don’t get this in tennis.

If we bring too much technology into football, however much we may gain in terms of correct decisions, we are at risk of losing much, much more…..

Joel Durston

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