FIFA feigning interest in technology

The debate over introducing video technology into football is one of the game’s more long standing issues, and James Dixon looks at the reasons for FIFA failing to make what seems like an obvious and straight forward change.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter will view 2010 as one of the high points of his time in office.

Blatter was completely vindicated taking the 2010 World Cup to Africa, and he has led the Executive Committee towards two more pioneering choices in Russia & Qatar for the 2018 & 2022 tournaments.

In the wake of the successful organisation of an African World Cup, one where the best footballing team won – no mean PR feat, when many detractors said that taking the tournament to the continent would be a mistake you can understand why Blatter may feel emboldened.

However, Blatter had some downs as well as ups. Two members of his Executive Committee have been found guilty of corruption, and more have had allegations levelled against them. The FIFA image has been somewhat tarnished, though through more the entrapment of the Sunday Times than Andrew Jenning’s continuing campaign against the corruption he sees at the heart of the Zurich based organisation.

The refereeing howler made by the Uruguayan officials in the England v Germany match at the World Cup, and the injustice felt round the world by every single person of Irish ancestry intensified the pressure for some form of technological assistance to supplement the officiating crew, something which hitherto had been an anathema for FIFA.

When Blatter announced that the International Football Association Board, which comprises FIFA and the Home Nation FAs would examine technology in March 2011, it was somewhat of a surprise as he personally has always before been a sceptic if not an outright critic of the role technology could play.

However, Paul Hawking the man behind the Hawk-eye technology used in Tennis and Cricket has revealed some of the caveats of FIFA’s invitation, and it looks about as transparent a process as bidding for the World Cup itself.

Companies wishing to display their technology will only be allowed access to the Stadium seven hours prior to the test beginning, when Hawking says that an installation time of four days is normal. This stipulation seems designed to make failure more likely, and curious given that FIFA require access to stadia for major events more than seven hours in advance.

‘FIFA say the demonstration has to be on their pitches, which are AstroTurf, which means embedding our chipping equipment won’t be easy,’ said Hawkins.

Any business wishing to take part will also have to pay 200,000 Swiss Francs (£133,000) for the commercial cost of the FIFA appointed independent assessors with no guarantee that even if their product is demonstrated to be 100% successful that it will be adopted by the IFAB.

What happens in other Sports?

Two basic systems of technological assistance exist in world sport today.

Official Instigated Review – this happens in Rugby Union, Rugby League, Ice Hockey, Basketball and Baseball.

Referees and Umpires can check video to decide whether certain scoring plays are valid. The challenges are restricted to scoring events and can only be requested by the match officials.

Sometimes the use of technology is extremely limited, e.g. in Basketball it is only used to determine ‘buzzer beater’ shots at the end of quarters; but more often it is available for certain types of activity: goals in Ice Hockey, tries in Rugby and home runs in Baseball.

Ice Hockey is perhaps the best sport to draw comparisons with a potential system of technological review in Football. The amount of scoring in the two sports is roughly similar so therefore goals and incidents that could be goals take on roughly similar levels of importance.

All goals in the NHL are checked by a replay official to ensure they are correctly awarded before the game is restarted. Events not given as goals are checked live by the replay official, who can overrule the on ice crew and put right any errors. The checks are speedy and have removed much controversy.

Participant Instigated Review – these systems such as the one that operates in Tennis allow the participants a limited number of occasions that they can challenge the ruling of officials.

Tennis uses Hawk-Eye, which says it is accurate to within 3.6 mm. However, American Football requires the on-field officials to re-examine their decision.

Some sports like American Football and Cricket actually have hybrids of these two methods of instigating review, dependent on some game specific factors.

Most sports (Tennis being the only high profile exception) have a presumption that if doubt persists after resorting to technology the view of the on field officials will take precedence; and all deal with their review systems in a reasonably swift manner. We have become used to stoppages in play every time a player goes down with cramp despite countless directives that the game should continue – would 60 seconds to see whether that was a penalty or not be the end of the world?

Issues do remain with review systems, however, making sure the live audience are as well informed about the decisions as the television one being chief amongst them. Large Screens at grounds to allow the live audience to be privy to the replayed action is one solution, another is explanation from the officials. Cricket found itself alienating the spectator at the ground when they were denied access to the replayed images and were then only privy to a hand signal indicating reversal or not – they wanted to know why.

Most worryingly for proponents of adoption or experimentation with technology in the beautiful game is FIFA’s insistence of an instantaneous, automated, foolproof system. Such level of rigour is not demanded by any other governing body in the world. FIFA will not countenance any form of review – official instigated or not. It only wants to address one aspect of disputed goals – was that over the line or not.

FIFA indicate a desire to move immediately from a system of human infallibility where the referee is never wrong to a system of technological infallibility; ignoring a huge swathe of good practice that shows a happy medium can exist.

A cynic might argue that the conditions laid out are designed to give FIFA and the IFAB every opportunity to say ‘no’, while being able to tell people that they tried.

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The Author

James Dixon

Birmingham City fan exiled in Nottingham, with an unhealthy interest in the 1990s

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