Are we about to the landscape of football change forever? Several unprecedented measures that will influence refereeing were announced at the annual general meeting of the International Football Association Board (Ifap), the body entrusted with evaluating any potential reforms to the laws of the game.
The big game on some small screens
Most notable of these propositions to be passed is that of video assistant referees or VARs. This involves a group of referees reviewing and analysing in a independant location via TV screens decisions made by the referees in real time. Soon to be unfurled in next year’s FA cup and significantly the German Bundesliga, is this the future of refereeing?
The immediate concern which follows such a proposal is that every decision will be scrutinised, team’s will call for the referee to refer to the replays at every key moment, and the referee will ultimately be a passive, luminous yellow blob in the middle of the pitch – a sad sight indeed.
Yet on the contrary this measure has been streamlined and refined with all the anxieties in mind. Firstly, and perhaps most crucially, the VARs will only be involved in ‘’match-changing decisions’’ when it is blatantly obvious that the official has made an error. Using broadcaster’s footage the VARs will be able to alert the referee of any key decision they believe to be misjudged, especially in some of the most contentious and difficult incidents such as dangerous tackles that inevitably have a certain degree of subjectively that makes them a nightmare for referees to judge.
Reflecting on these proposals, it must be said that they have evidently been subjected to a great deal of conditioning and refining before they could burst into the scene. For instance, the attention to detail in this very new measure (for football at least) is to be admired. The use of different camera speeds is worthy of note as reviews of bad tackles will only be analysed with the aid of real-time replays so to avoid slow-motion replays portraying the incident as more severe compared to the reality of the challenge. These slow-motion replays will be solely employed in ‘point of contact offences’, a convoluted way of explaining incidences like handball. This is hoped to help to avoid controversial moments such as the gut-wrenching elimination of the Republic of Ireland from WC qualifying in 2009 at the hands of (quite literally) Thierry Henry’s France. Leaving no stone unturned, Ifap has forbidden any form of appeal from players and staff trying to swing any potential decision to go their way. Stamping down on this attempted back-seat refereeing, any player speculatively making a TV sign towards the referee will soon be put in their place with an instant yellow card.
However, many fans will still be highly concerned about how this changes the flow of the game. Aren’t controversial decisions part of the sport we love? What will we passionately argue about in the pub? Will there be anything to debate in the post-match analysis? I am of course by no means declaring that pubs will fall silent or that Gary Lineker will be heading down the job centre any time soon – yet, for many fans, it is the unexpected, the unknown, that truly makes football the sport we know and love. Also, some may argue that it simply replaces one subjective judge with a group of subjective judges – there will always be someone unhappy with a decision regardless.
Despite this it must be admitted that these measures will help advance the game in many important aspects. You only have to take the highly frustrating issue of diving will now become much more difficult to conceal as will off-the-ball violent conduct. To calm fears of a fragmented, stop-start game, it has been made clear to referees that the way they approach their job should in no way change and that the VARs are a comfort measure. Yellow cards and corners are therefore exempt from VAR influence.
Now let’s consider more empathetically our friends the referees, both our best friend and our most hated enemy on any given day. It is said that refereeing is the hardest job in football, and who would dare disagree! When a referee makes a mistake, they are thrashed by pundits, openly-criticised by managers, and loathed by fans. When a referee has a good game, no one bats an eyelid. It’s perhaps one of the most underappreciated roles in the game. This measure, rather than undermining them, will help them improve the fairness of the game and eradicate match-changing errors that would otherwise be, albeit innocently, committed by these important figures. As I write I can imagine Mike Dean blowing a huge sigh of relief.
The Never-ending battle: Goal Line Technology
Implemented in the Premier League since 2013, it is perhaps surprising to discover that such technology has not infiltrating all major leagues and domestic competitions. Yet unbelievably the Championship has only just announced that this technology, that has proved invaluable in the PL, will be used from the start of the 2017/18 season.
The EFL chief executive, Shaun Harvey, declared: “I welcome the decision of our clubs to introduce goal line technology into the EFL. [Professional Game Match Officials Limited] officials do an incredible job and this decision is about providing our match officials with as much support as possible to ensure they are best placed to make the right calls in even the most difficult of situations. The technology is widely adopted elsewhere in football, including in two of our competitions, and I therefore welcome it as an important addition to the Sky Bet Championship from next season.”
This will be a welcome change to a league which has seen several unfortunate decisions where goals haven’t been awarded due to the referee’s difficult position. One notable example, a header from Northern Ireland and QPR striker Conor Washington smashing down off the crossbar, a yard over the line, in game which the West London would go on to lose 1-0.
Given the huge status both economically and symbolically of the Championship and the potential of promotion and reaching the promised land of Premier League football, it is astounding that it has taken this long for goal line technology to be agreed.
Whatever your opinion on technology in football, it will undoubtedly take on an increasingly important role in the future as the sport becomes more and more overloaded with wealth and investment, every decision can have major economic impacts. Yet like all sports, it is important to not see such changes as a move away from the game we cherish, but to view them as a sign of progress, of development, you could call it an evolution.