Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Part Two.

A two part investigation to analyse the difficulties that football faces in maintaining and improving its standard of refereeing.

Luis Garcias Ghost Goal: Do we need goal line technology?

Luis Garcia's 'Ghost Goal': Do we need goal line technology?

This is the second of a two part look at what i perceive to be declining standards of refereeing within football. On Thursday I looked at the growing problem of impartiality amongst officials, whereby it seems that certain institutions within the game are negatively affecting the standards of refereeing that we see throughout English football.

Today I take a new approach and analyse the proposals that have been made many times in recent years over whether or not we should introduce goal line technology into our game. This article will see me reach a conclusion that appears to conflict with the one I reached in Part One, and that is indeed so. But I strongly believe in the truth of each argument and feel that together they serve to highlight the growing need to introduce a change for the better in football refereeing.

Please read both articles and then consider the points I have made. If you agree or disagree, let me know. Even better, if you can reconcile my two conclusions with a solution, let me know. The idea behind this two part story is to highlight flaws with the system, but it does not solve them – that is a problem for us all to consider.

If you have not already read it, find Part One here.

In modern football, one of the topics that is most frequently debated, is whether or not we should introduce some sort of goal line technology. This is a natural thing, as of course what really counts in football is goals, and if the goal line is involved in a controversial decision, then it can make or break a match for a team. These are the sort of decisions that we really need to get right, but is ‘technology’ the answer?

There has certainly been much call for it, and with many clubs embracing more and more technological advances in training regimes, fitness practices and even penalty shootout preparation, it does seem that there are precedents that suggest football and technology can work hand in hand. On top of that, there are definitely precedents from other sports, where technology has successfully been used to aid officials in their decision making and have come to be regarded as integral to these sports.

For me, the perfect example of technology in sport is tennis. In recent years Hawk Eye technology has allowed players to challenge tight line-calls and it is actually surprising how often the line judges get it wrong. Of course, tennis balls travel at immense speeds and so they are not to be criticised for such mistakes, but I think the implementation of this technology has advantaged the sport as a whole. The only criticism of it is that it is something that cannot be replicated throughout the different tiers of tennis, it is too expensive to grace amateur clubs and tournaments, and so in a way may create more of a divide between the elite and the amateur.

Rugby Union has also seen successful implementation of video replays, for use in determining whether or not the ball has touched the turf over the try-line. When there are mountains of great hulking brute piling all over each other and the ball, the referees never really had a hope of spotting quite whether a try had in fact been scored but slow motion replays from multiple angles often make it easier for such a decision to be accurately determined, and I feel that this sport too has embraced the technology.

Cricket and technology used to go hand in hand too, they have been using video replays to determine whether or not a player is run out for a long time now and it has been a successful system. However, it is the implementation of further technology into cricket that ultimately inspired this article. Watching England against the West Indies the other day, I saw what a shambles was being made of the new ‘referral system’, whereby the on-field umpires’ decisions may be overturned by the third umpire who has the benefit of video and hawk eye technology, following a ‘referral’ from either side.

The fourth test match between these two sides saw much controversy when some decisions that looked right were overturned by the third umpire and some that looked wrong were upheld. It came to beg the question as to how much trust we may place in such ‘predictive’ technology when it works in tandem with a human official. Because previous video replays judging ‘run-out’ decisions were simply documenting what had actually occurred there was no problem, but because LBW decisions need to determine the course of the ball had they not hit the batsmen’s pads, it ultimately comes down to the accuracy of the technology and then the interpretation of the human official, and it seems that this led to some problems.

The decision to implement this further use of technology into cricket was met with much initial opposal, from traditionalists naturally, but also from people who thought that it would undermine the authority of the on field umpires, and it seems that this may have occurred. The umpires on the pitch still make their decisions as they always have done, but they can then see the players, who are supposed to be under their authority can then override their decision and ask for a closer look, as it were.

I feel that this is where the problem really lies, and in a slightly conspiratorial turn I did wonder whether Daryl Harper, the third-umpire who made such bemusing decisions, and is also an on-field umpire may not have been trying to stage an active protest against the imposal of this new technology because it is so detrimental to the authority and respect of the umpires out there on the pitch. I certainly think that this is a road not worth going down, because giving players the license to question an umpires decisions seems to me to be a step towards anarchy in sport. The umpires are there for a reason, to impose an impartial and unbiased rule over both teams.

This is the point at which the debate turns to football. Most exponents of goal line technology have suggested that a system whereby when there is doubt in the referees mind, a television replay can be used and adjudicated by a separate official, to determine the legitimacy of the goal claim. This though, is all too similar to the current battle that is occurring in the West Indies for my liking.

I will concede that there is a slight difference in that football replays would be analysing the path that the ball has actually taken, whereas cricket has to use predictive technology. However, part of the problem is that after such controversial decisions have occurred, TV replays have on occasion been unable to determine whether or not the ball had in fact crossed the line. The most memorable example of this I believe, was Luis Garcia’s phantom goal in the Champions League for Liverpool against Chelsea, a goal that probably shouldn’t have stood, but has never been conclusively decided either way.

In situations such as this, supporters of the installation of such technology suggest that the Hawk-Eye system should be turned to, allowing the clever software to predict the trajectory and position of the ball using the established data it already has gleaned from the balls initial trajectory, based in the television footage. This would, in theory, allow it to determine whether or not the ball had crossed the line in situations like the aforementioned ‘phantom goal’ phenomenon, where all the angles provided by TV cameras were blocked by players and posts.

This means though, that we would after all be venturing along the shaky lines of predictive technology, and I simply don’t think that that is a safe path to tread. One simply cannot rely on computer technology to predict and account for every possible contributor to the balls actual path through the air, and so I don’t think any evidence gleaned by such a method could be deemed as conclusive.

What’s more, I think that we need to preserve the authority of the on-pitch referees. To have the power suddenly stripped from the men in black and whisked away to a computer somewhere in the stadium would seem to me to undermine their officiation in a similar way to how the ‘referral system’ is playing havoc in the W.Indies. Football already suffers from a problem where players feel that by screaming and shouting and throwing a tantrum they can overturn a referees decision, and I feel that introducing the goal line technology would further undermine any respect that is given to the on pitch officials.

The ‘respect campaign’ has been much maligned this season in English football, and rightly so, referees cannot simply demand the respect of players, managers and fans, they must earn it. But in a similar way as to which the FA cannot demand that we give the referees respect they don’t deserve, they should also be extremely wary of introducing systems whereby the tenuous relationship between officials and players is placed under further strain.

Don’t get me wrong, I dam not saying that goal line decisions are not in need of some sort of improvement, in fact I strongly agree that they are. I think it is a tragedy that Liverpool went on to win the Champions League in 2005 when their progression through the tournament depends entirely on a goal that probably shouldn’t have been given. However, I feel that we must get our priorities right, and I believe that introducing goal line technology would do more harm than good to the game as a whole.

Unfortunately, in my aversion to goal line technology, it does seem that I place the burden of any improvement largely in the hands of the referees themselves, and they are a group of people whose integrity I do not feel a tremendous amount of respect for (see Part One of this debate). However, although I think the current crop of referees leave a lot to be desired with regard to their impartiality and honour, I maintain that we should not sacrifice the authority of the referee simply to improve one small, and relatively infrequent, facet of refereeing.

Indeed, one of the things that I so love about football is that it truly is a sport that is played the same way at every level. Right from the grass roots up, there is no real difference between matches that take place, except the quality and the attendance. The rules of the game, the setup of the pitch, the number of officials etc. are all the same be the match between SAHA Juniors and Meresiders or between Everton and Liverpool. What this means to, is that diminished respect toward referees would have a negative impact on the game as a whole and set a poor example to the kids at grass roots level.

Because goal line technology could not be implemented at every level, it is just completely and utterly implausible. And so although the referees in the lower echelons of the game would still have the final say with regard to decisions like that, there would still be the feeling amongst the players who watched their heroes rely on a computer each week that the referee does not hold absolute authority, and that would be bad for the game as a whole. It is not necessary that the referees be respected absolutely and without question, they have to earn it as I said before, but the rules of the game do have to be respected for the integrity of the sport to remain in tact.

So is there an alternative to goal line technology, whereby we still improve the accuracy of goal line decisions? Well, there might be. A while ago FIFA tested technology involving the housing of a microchip in the centre of a ball and censors around the frame of the goal, which would alert the referee when the ball had crossed the line completely, and thus allow him to give the goal, categorically, one way or the other. I don’t know how successful the trial was (but perhaps the fact that I haven’t heard hide nor hair about it again speaks for itself), but this seems like being a plausible avenue to pursue, if the technology could be perfected, though of course it would still rely on the efficiency of the technology and would still raise problems to an extent at grassroots level.

The other option that is frequently touted about is to employ yet another match official whose sole job it is to monitor the goal from close proximity (i.e. behind the net) and from that vantage provide accurate decisions as to whether or not a goal should stand. This seems like a sensible proposal to a point, in that it would work, but really, it sets rather a precedent that could eventually see limitless referees employed simply to monitor certain types of fouls, or throw ins, or whether the ball was in the triangle for a corner, or measuring out the distance of the wall… you get my point I’m sure. It just seems silly to me to have another two officials for each end, just in case there is a close call.

In essence then, my conclusion is that goal line technology, in it’s most obvious embodiment, would be a mistake for football. I believe that the negative consequences that would come from the use of such technology would far outweigh any positives that may be derived from it. I believe that it would undermine the integrity of the officials and hand the players too much license to question their decisions. For now then, we must continue to rely on the integrity of our human match officials, but that means that this is certainly an uneasy conclusion, as the integrity and impartiality of our human match officials is not exactly without its own controversy (see Part One.)

This then, concludes my two part look at match officiation in the modern game. If you have read both articles you will see that I argue really at cross conclusions. I suggest that we both cannot trust the decisions made by referees, and we must trust the decisions that they make. I know as well as you do that this seems to involve a certain paradox, but that is why I chose to write these articles as a two part story. I feel that we need something to change with regards to officiation in our sport, and I feel that these two articles make that as clear as anything can. Unfortunately I have no definitive answers to this problem, but hope that I have raised awareness by outlining it. Now you can consider ways in which we may work to improve this aspect of our sport and please, if you do have any brainwaves, let me know! Leave a comment, and get others involved too. Football is a game of the people and there is no reason why we cannot help to improve it where the governing bodies seem to be failing.
Thanks very much for reading.

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