By Tim Todd: Senior Diaby Researcher
With a twinkle in their eyes, as if they have been struck with genius, nearly every single television commentator, writer, blogger, and fan of the game has decided two things: referees are suddenly the worst they have ever been and that the only way to solve the problem with referees getting calls wrong is… instant replay refereeing. Well, first, I haven’t seen a significant change in refereeing since I’ve been following the game. They have always been awful and random. And second, be careful what you wish for.
I am not a football traditionalist. I don’t think instant replay will “slow the game down”, I don’t worry about how they will stop the game to review the play, and I’m not one of these boring people who worries about how they will implement the system. I’m worried about how instant replay will change the game.
Instant replay will not slow the game down. A typical football match already has a variety of events which result in stoppages: fouls, head injuries, fake injuries, offsides, throw-ins, Chelsea players surrounding the referee every five minutes, and playing a match against Stoke City or West Ham. Instant replay will, at worst, result in a few seconds of extra stoppage time being added on to the game.
I also don’t worry about how they will stop and start the game in order to review a play. The game already has precedent for arbitrary stoppages whenever there is an injury. The referee sees a player down, he stops play (sometimes), the physios jog out, the player is sprayed with Magic Spray, the player is revived, and another sports miracle is witnessed. Play is restarted when sometimes a drop kick is awarded and other times the ball is simply kicked to the other team. This happens in every match, multiple times. And you can’t see how instant replay will be administered?
Or how about the king of arbitrary stoppages, intentional fouling. Any time the opposition is on a fast break, the opponent will look to foul to stop the play. Sometimes the official will call the play dead and force a restart with a free kick and other times, he will award an “advantage” and let play go on. This advantage rule is one of the worst rules in the game. I’ve seen Santi Cazorla get kicked in the Arsenal defensive third, the official play an “advantage”, and then Cazorla gets kicked again and the official decides it’s not a foul, so Cazorla turns the ball over in a dangerous area and the opposition scores. It’s completely arbitrary when the referees stop play.
And I don’t care how they implement the system. Some have suggested managers get challenges, I’m ok with that. So what if Sam Allardyce throws a challenge late in a game in order to waste time or stop a counter attack? Is that any different than his players intentionally fouling in order to stop a play? And before you say “yeah, but they get a yellow card for that” I can show you dozens of fouls every weekend which are done to kill a fast break and aren’t given a yellow card.
The facts are clear that the referees are well out of their depth and have been for some time. This weekend alone there was another case of mistaken identity and the wrong player was assigned a red card. That seems like a mistake that a referee should never make, yet that was the second time in two years.
For several months now I have championed having two referees on the pitch: one in front of the play, one behind the play. I think this will work wonders because right now, the referee only sees the game from the one angle and many times instant replay’s main power is that it sees the incident from the front. Had there been two referees on the pitch this weekend in the Man City v. West Brom match, I can guarantee you that the referees wouldn’t have given the wrong player a red card.
But I don’t think the two official system is going to happen because the game is primed for instant replay. The fans want it and the managers want it. Instead of a second referee on the pitch, they want a second referee in a room somewhere to watch the match and review the plays. Hell, that video replay official doesn’t even have to be at the stadium. He could be in a sound proof room in Guam. With all the people banging the drum instant replay officiating is inevitable.
I have watched the evolution of instant replay refereeing from the inside and I have to tell you, it’s weird. It’s so weird over here in America that when you watch an NFL game and there is an instant replay, the broadcasters call in their “rules analyst” to comment on the instant replay. The reason they do this is because the rules have become so byzantine and bogged down in minutiae that we need to have them explained to us by a lawyer. What was it that Shakespeare said about lawyers?
This is what happens when you introduce instant replay. By slowing the action down you get to see finer details and once you see those finer details, you have to adjust the rules to cover those finer details. For example, one of the main rules people would like to see reviewed is the offside call. And if you do that, you will need to add to the rules an interpretation of when the ball is played forward. Is it a forward pass when the ball is first touched or when the ball clears the player’s toes? Or at the middle-point of the kick? This matters because there are fractional offsides calls already happening and once we slow down the action we now get to see finer details about where the attacker was relative to the exact moment when the ball was kicked.
Notice I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m just saying that as a sport moves toward technology assisted refereeing, the technology itself starts to drive the officiating.
The other problem with video referees is that I don’t think two people can watch the same play and make the same call. Take the gif below:
Is that a foul or a dive? Koscielny certainly touches N’Zogbia but N’Zogbia certainly dives. Is “any contact” now a foul? I don’t think so, because if that was true then there would be a penalty awarded on every single corner kick. But even beyond my example of corners (since we clearly have two sets of rules: one for the penalty area and one for the field) there is a push among the fans that any contact absolves the player of guilt for a dive. And I’ve had this argument over that very gif above.
There are people who say that is not a dive, that it’s a penalty. For those folks, it doesn’t matter that N’Zogbia goes to plant his right foot and then picks it up and does a perfectly executed judo roll. Koscielny touched him, they say, it’s a foul. And for me? That is a stonewall dive.
What video replay will have to do is clarify this call above. Is any contact now a foul? How much force is required to be a foul? Can we have both foul and simulation? Should N’Zogbia get a card for diving, Koscielny get called for the foul, and the free kick be awarded outside the penalty box? Did anyone else notice the mythical Diaby in the gif? He’s there, folks. He’s there.
Maybe that’s the one question instant replay officiating can answer definitively: does Diaby exist? Until then, the mysteries of the universe, the offside rule, and whether Koscielny fouled N’Zogbia, will remain unanswered. Instant replay isn’t the panacea that many think it will be. It will simply add another layer of interpretation, it’s own layer which is bogged down in tiny details, to an already jumbled mess of rules that govern football.
If you want to fix refereeing the first thing you need to do is fix the laws of the game. Because it seems to me like the real problem isn’t that the refs aren’t seeing things properly it’s that too many of the Laws of the Game are intentionally vague and require judgement of “intent”. It’s also a problem that too many people don’t understand the laws and how officials make decisions because much of what officials decide is clouded in mystery. As if some secret cabal of black cloaked wizards are sitting in their ivory towers sending out proclamations onto the people. Until you fix those problems of interpretation and secrecy video replay officiating won’t solve anything. In fact, it could make things worse. Much worse.