Line in the Sand

Posted on May 2, 2011


Gomez’s error. Vidic’s handball. Kalou’s offside goal, Clichy’s stamp on Owen.  This hasn’t been the best of weekends for officials. So absolutely nobody is surprised that the issue of technology in football is with us again. For the tl;dr crowd, my opinions on the weekend can be summarised as – yes to goal-line technology, yes to AV, yes to dead Bin Laden, and no to anything involving the newly extended royal family.

With regard to the thorny issue of technology, the arguments are about as well-trodden as Michael Owen’s calf. The argument presented that football should be the same from playgrounds to non-league through to the FA cup final is certainly one worthy of respect. It’s a noble enough idea that the game should be the same at all levels. It’s also nonsense, mind. How many amateurs play with linesmen, or even without referees? A while back David James wrote  in the Guardian about the differences when he dropped down to Championship level with Bristol. He mused on having to bring your own equipment, travelling changes and a different type of ball:

“That’s no criticism of the players. For one thing you’ve only got to look at the ball we’re playing with and you’ll understand one of the reasons why the game in this league is so different. It’s horrible, it’s like kicking a shot put around! It definitely has a detrimental effect on the way the game is played and that can’t be good for a league competing for attention with the top flight.”

As I said, the arguments are all a bit played out. But I was listening to the radio a while ago, and there was a wonderful little interview with the cricket umpire Dickie Bird. To his credit, he came up with some novel arguments. These are the main points, along with the reasons why he is completely wrong:

Being able to revert to technology means less authority for the referee -If anyone doesn’t think it’ll be great if players start mobbing the cameras, Rooney style, the way they surround the ref nowadays, then they should just stop reading now. The ref will still be the one with the cards. And he’ll be the one controlling the game. Having more information made available to him won’t change that. We’ve now got the farcical situation where a referee can make an error before half-time, see their mistake during the break, and then have to try and exert authority for the rest of the match.

More controversy – This was, marvellously, sold as being a positive thing. If a match has a bad decision in it, it gives people something to talk about and debate afterwards. Standard pub chat. Rubbish. When thousands of people are spending not-inconsiderable amounts of money to go see their teams play, they should get to see the better side win; not a match determined by a mistake. If Spurs manage to miss out on the Champion’s League because of two dodgy Chelsea goals, there won’t be too many Spurs fans saying “at least we got some good banter out of it”.

It is a way to sort the best referees, the top ones are those that make the fewest mistakes – No. Just no. I might make a great referee. That doesn’t mean that I should be given the opportunity to test my skills by officiating an important match. I appreciate the idea that poor refereeing is punished by getting fewer top-level matches, but why in God’s name would we settle for the referee who gets it wrong the least when we actually have the ability to get the objectively correct outcome almost all the time?

The problem with this kind of argument is that it treats the use of replays and such as a replacement for the ref, rather than a tool to aid them.It’s a hard and thankless job. There are few congratulations for a well officiated match, but any mistake can bring a shit-storm of criticism down on the poor bastards.  And it doesn’t help that we do have the benefits of slow-motion replay from multiple angles.  So we all know when a mistake has been made long before they do. I’d just love it if for a few matches, we were given the option of referee cam. Referees would carry a discreet portable camera and give us the opportunity to try and pick out fouls, offsides, etc from a fast paced match. Take us and the pundits away from our elevated viewpoint, instant replay and wide angle shots; I suspect that we probably wouldn’t notice quite so much. But for god’s sake, make sure the microphones are switched off. With all the suspensions, there’d be no players left.

Still, for those who want a simple game with absolutely no controversy, there’s always El Classico tomorrow.