Having once been the preserve of similarly global professionalised ranks of sport such as tennis, rugby and cricket, video referral systems are now eating up lost ground in the world of football. The technology that has launched a thousand disparaging press articles and societal arguments, came through these tests with flying colours and become a mainstay of many a leading sporting landscape since, is now arriving at FIFA’s recently-polished doorstep, and meaning business it seems. Despite very little prior warning nor public consultation, the Hawk-Eye and FIFA coalition has sprung a - literally – game changing surprise upon the stakeholders of the game this week, in fact on just the day before the tournament in focus kicked off, as they announced that video assistant referees would be in place for a trial period throughout the latter’s very reputable Club World Cup Championship. Where better, they must’ve thought, for such a transformative, ground-breaking technological development than in the backyard of the tech universe – the host nation of this tournament, Japan – where up to 72,000 people could attend the final, which should surely contain Real Madrid’s force, in Yokohama, in just over a week’s time (from the point this blog is released).
There is little doubt that this tournament will go down as the turning point, arguably in the history of the entire game, but more realistically in the refereeing of the top ranks of it instead, as it will serve as the aperitif to what is bound to be a bountiful and, more importantly, reformed, future for football and FIFA alike, ushering in a new era of improved credibility and hopefully, sponsorship opportunities with wider markets. Whether this is destined to occur is up for debate, but indisputably, this decision by the higher powers, of which robotic politician Gianni Infantino is the foremost figure, this week, is one that will plant the seeds of prosperity for future presidents and league officials throughout the developed footballing world, transforming the way we, and generations after ours, see the game. Why is this? Well, get yourself comfortable and read on to find out…
Before I go into too much detail, there’s just one vital aspect to this whole global revelation of a story, however underreported it went by the wider media, which I couldn’t help but laugh at. Football, for once, isn’t setting the pace in the sporting world, much to their annoyance you have to believe, in that they have fallen behind, at least in the technological front, to comparatively smaller sports, which understandably turned to deviating methods to try and gain an upper hand, a USP if you will, to their world-class sporting industries. Rugby, for example, has blossomed ever since the decision to introduce video referrals back in 1996 for the league codes, and 2001 for union. Any previous fears over a downturn in support or a disenchantment with the professionalised sections of the sport at those points, as it turns out, were unfounded in due course, as since the latter few years of the 20th century, the two sides of the sport have seen a dramatic upturn in attendances and arguably supporter morale, not solely in tandem with the introduction of video referrals, but as a bi-product of the ramped-up drama and further credibility it adds to the sport. The way the marketing teams of particular top leagues in the rugby world have handled this addition to their games was admittedly very smart, taking the short break in play to add to the atmosphere in games by playing music while showcasing the drama on big screens around the ground, playing a large role in the increase in attendances of these matches since the turn of the century.
This fault in football’s agonisingly lethargic path towards this week’s decision can be laid at the familiarly blood-laden hands of a certain Mr. Blatter, a very vocal opponent of the forward-thinking systems of both goal-line technology, more pressing at the time, particularly in the wake of Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost’ goal in the 2010 World Cup, or rather any kind of technology. This could be explained by the motive Blatter had of desperately clinging on to his clique of supporters in African, Asian and Caribbean FA’s, who would’ve felt it was an unnecessary distraction to what mattered for them; more investment for less developed nations. Now that the dictatorial kingpin of the game has been culled, tossed out the back door of FIFA’s Genevan headquarters and replaced with another shiny, stable lawyer in Infantino, the clean slate is there for a creative flourish to the tarnished game, something Infantino is blatantly lacking, typified by his brainless suggestion earlier this week of a 48-team World Cup split into 16 groups of three sides. Despite this, we’re lucky to have vastly more knowledgeable and forward-thinking figures inside FIFA’s vaults these days, such as Marco van Basten, who in his role as Chief Officer of Technical Development – which most fans would’ve been clueless about before this week (at least I know I was) – played a big role in pushing through these exciting new propositions of technology in the game. Yet another example of the ex-players having more of a clue of what to do with the game than the lawyers again, even if they will forever be adjudged at the top level to be too much of a risk to place in charge of wide scale organisational bodies. *Sigh*.
One thing you have to admire about the aforementioned goal-line technology, introduced most prominently by the fine people at Hawk-Eye, GoalControl and GoalRef over the past five years or so, is that it has fitted in seamlessly into the global footballing landscape, in a very short space of time going from ‘flawed’ and ‘too expensive’ to a widely accepted, and valued, aspect of the game’s integrity. In the space of five quick years, Hawk-Eye founder Paul Hawkins went from having to write an enraged letter to Blatter himself over an apparent U-turn over the technology, to having his company’s technology in place at every Premier League, and only just miss out on bidding for rights to control the goal-line decisions at the 2014 World Cup. I doubt there has ever been a quicker transition in the politically muddied world of FIFA. That, simply put, is why we can trust these technological developments with the fate of football’s future; they do care about the safety of referee’s livelihoods and of traditional footballing values, but they, along with all of us sensible enough to realise the issues, want to see a more reliable and justified standard of decision-making in the game, trying to find the impossible; 100% accuracy. Some may say this will never be attainable. Well, put your faith in the likes of Hawk-Eye, who work tirelessly to develop the next big things in sports refereeing, I say, and they will take you to places you never imagined possible. Absolute refereeing reliability is surely the next destination on that journey to salvage the credibility of referees in an increasingly critical sporting world, where millions of fans can witness one fatal flaw in decision-making over their television, but vitally the single figure in charge can’t.
Moving on from merely goal-line decisions into the future should provide unthinkable benefits to referees, leagues, clubs, players and, more than anything, football in a wider sense. Just take a second to appreciate the sheer scale of disenchantment in the words of our pundits, managers, players and opposition fans in recent years particularly, as no one group here appears to be fully satisfied with the current system, which allows for a multitude of seriously game-changing errors. The awarding of penalties, or not as the case may be, in the event of an unclear case of diving or a handball is a crucial aspect to the game today, as players go over easier than ever – as demonstrated by Dele Alli against Swansea last week, and in many cases protest to referees more precociously than ever before – Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, we’re looking at you. These continuous accounts of deceptive and manipulative tactics towards referees make it almost impossible for refereeing teams to go a whole 90 minutes without making a single glaring mistake. Surely this can’t continue to be the case? Surely we want things to change for the better in the running of football, with easily avoidable mistakes, well, avoided?
One of the major criticisms of Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) technology in all sections of sport, however, is that it detracts from the game, eating into the time allotted for each half of play, therefore sending fans home later from each game. Well, as far as I can decipher, this is a totally unfounded argument, devoid of any serious supportive evidence. From the Dutch referee, Björn Kuipers, in charge of the Italy vs France international friendly in September – the competitive debut of VAR’s, it’s important to remember – and his reference to the technology of instilling ‘trust’ in him from the players in his control, these progressive movements from FIFA appear, in their short history so far, to have had a positive impact. If you’re wondering, the technology was in fact used twice in the game – as it is only designed for truly game-changing incidents -, decisively seeing French player Djibril Sidibé escape a red card for a challenge on Daniele De Rossi, and De Rossi also avoid giving away a penalty for what might’ve appeared a handball, with both decisions only taking around 10 seconds. In the scheme of the game, these events could’ve been adjudged as decisive, especially on the international stage, where the smallest of events can completely change the course of a game and a tournament, testament to the cautious tactics employed by most sides.
From the completely positive signs emitted from that particular match, and the inevitable follow-up of the technology in the Club World Cup, effectively more FIFA’s guinea pig for new innovations rather than a serious cup competition – let’s be honest, we all know the winners already – all roads lead to world domination soon for VAR. Well, that might be an overstatement, but before long, it is a strong possibility we could even see this in place for the Premier League within the next two to three seasons – once, of course, the system has passed all immediate checks in its two-year trial period, in which it will be put through its paces in leagues including Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, Serie A and the MLS – and in the 2018 World Cup as the ultimate examination. Just as goal-line technology survived all these tests, admittedly having a slight stroke of luck in that it wasn’t called into action too often, just once in fact at the 2014 World Cup, I fully expect VAR’s to pass with colours, and soon become part of the furniture in our footballing world.
I can definitely understand the calls not to be too hasty with decisions of this calibre though. It is absolutely imperative to get the planning of these system’s introductions into the game fool-proof, making sure there cannot be a repeat of such debacles, as FIFA are prone to, such as the on-off relationship with golden goals, or the shambles of a plainly corrupt 2022 World Cup bid from Qatar. For once, though, this is something I believe we can trust the sorry excuse we have for a governing body in; they specialise in finer detail, and that is what this case is entirely about, working alongside the diligent International Football Association Board – the body that basically organises the running of matches through the rule books – to produce a unbelievably lengthy (even more than these blogs) and detailed report. In utilising their stock of lawyers around their Zurich offices, FIFA will be able to work their way through the red tape, achieved ultimately once the IFAB rules video technology legal in helping referees. In avoiding near-certain controversy by springing this announcement upon the sport, they have cleverly smoothed out the process over a number of years, allowing us all to get used to the instalments by their equally foreboding presence at the next World Cup.
One considerable, if lateral, thought I couldn’t help but detail here in order to massage the niggle at the back of my mind on this whole topic though, is; would this second wave of technological revolution in football force even more monotony upon those who ‘enjoy’ it? If anything, this is the argument I believe the campaigners against the decision, a minority I must admit in the wider scheme of football fans, was lacking, as it is the only one which will seriously impact upon series of future generations viewing, or possibly as may be the case, not viewing, the sport. I know; it is a repetitive sentiment on my part, but I do fear for a serious lack of action and character in top-level football right now, and going into the future. Already pushed out by the politically-correct businessmen and officials in charge of the vital, and more importantly dominant, commercial side of the game, I sense that the introduction of these types of technology, which slowly sap more power away from referees, whether you feel that is a good or bad thing, could eradicate even more of, ironically, the Talking Points of a number of high-quality matches around the globe. Seriously, I can’t remember an episode of Match of the Day in which there hasn’t been at least one comment on play-acting, diving, yellow/red cards, handballs or offsides. I honestly think I would miss, despite its absolute tedium, the dulcet (well, not quite) tones of Mark Lawrenson lamenting another ‘poor’ refereeing decision; “It was never a penalty, Gary, not in a million years”. It seems strange, but I feel it would be missed. If anything, VAR’s would fill the Mark Lawrenson-shaped void in our footballing lives, and despite his many faults, I’m not sure I’d be entirely comfortable with that. About half the running time on MOTD could be lost to this simple innovation, just imagine that!
I suppose, though, that these sentiments conjoin with the universal argument of; “think of the tradition being lost”, as they both share a close tie to the familiar aspects of football that we can’t help but be endlessly endeared to. Maybe not so endlessly, it may eventually turn out, as referees devolve power to their assistants in the satellite-adorned vans outside the ground in moments at which their human capabilities are pushed to the limit; those big moments which can decide the seasons, even futures, of certain clubs. Can these officials afford to be trusted anymore with these responsibilities? Well, despite decades and centuries of increasingly strenuous training, it seems not, as you can only honestly say referees get these types of decisions indisputably correct, at least to a neutral, maybe 50% of the time, possibly more depending on global region. As it turns out, Infantino, among large sections of the footballing community, doesn’t believe this is acceptable anymore, and has decided to head down the similar path of rugby, tennis and cricket, amongst others (particularly including American pastimes), opting for embracing technology, surely an inevitable response for the sport. In a growing global age of hyper-criticism from fans-turned-keyboard warriors, spawning from universal coverage of the top matches, FIFA have opted for the easy option for the future; to face the wrath of the traditionalists, a dying breed in sport, but especially in football, rather than the breed of ravenously sport-addicted internet honchos, who had the potential to rip the sport in half from its internal structure.
It may be a regrettable move for those who appreciate the niceties of football; the quirks, the controversies, the casual chats at the bar in the aftermath, but fortunately for FIFA; this brand of fan, as I would account myself to be, is being pushed into non-league, the beating heart of true footballing morals, the grassroots that provide the platform for the outlandish drama rolled out every weekend at the top of the professional ranks. We are only too happy to find a new love in the amateur/semi-pro levels of the pyramid; in fact we can accredit the honour to FIFA for our decisions. We are, however, all casual followers of the likes of the Premier League, despite our constant rejections of the concept, and we all rely on its success for the survival of further divisions, not just in this country, but right around the world. Even if VAR’s will only reach the grounds of Premier League clubs, 20 in a range of anything up to 7,000 teams just in England, they will have a profound effect on not just the way we see the game, but the way it sees us - as they will surely have to try new tactics to offset the negative impacts of these decision down the line – all around the footballing globe.
While Infantino may be sitting pretty in Japan, overseeing the success of system, throughout this week, he should view the future with a sense of trepidation; otherwise his dreams could blow up in his face. We all want a successful sport, of course we do. I also believe that VAR’s will play a big part in taking football to a better place, but I am wary of its ramifications within the fabric of the sport – professional and otherwise – as while, familiarly, it will improve the lives of the mega-rich, it has the potential to make those of the representatives in the background considerably poorer, as less and less attention is spent upon them. All we can hope for now is that the trial period of this fantastic technology runs smoothly, and we’ll see what we can do from there. This story is far from over, I’m sure it won’t have relented until it finally settles into its position like goal-line technology. It is, however, by principal, much more than that goal-line stuff of the past, it is the new kid on the block, the jack-of-all-trades of a system with immense power to shape our futures watching, playing, volunteering in, and living, the game. This technology, whilst out of sight, will surely never be out of mind, and therefore will be in the firing line in the event of a mistake. In an increasingly tech-reliant world in which we are all evolving, however, I believe we can trust it. We have to trust it. Whether we can trust the humans behind it is another thing, of course.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!