Calls for the Introduction of Technology Grow Louder as the English FA Buries its Head in the Sand.

As the English Premier League limps towards its climax, it has been a sad state of affairs that rather than treating the fans to the nerve-jarring and finger biting moments, the talk of the games, which have been coming thick and fast, has been about refereeing decisions. There is no doubt that the tail end of the premiership season has been seen as the moment during which the destiny of clubs have been decided. Promotions, relegations, titles, and basic survival in the leagues tend to reach a crescendo at this time of the season. In the Premier League, all 20 clubs play a total of 38 games in the season. To assume that the outcome of a club’s destiny can be decided on a handful of the remaining games or referring decisions can be seen as absurd. However, when those games become talking points as a result of bad and downright inept decisions, fans can be forgiven if they look out for scapegoats.

There is no doubt that the English Premier League is one of the most watched sports worldwide, thanks in part to TV coverage. Arsenal legend Patrick Viera recently said about the Premier League that he “loved the atmosphere in the stadiums (stadia) and the passion around the game”. Unlike other football leagues in other countries, it has been seen by many fans as exciting, if not the best. But the recent blunders by the referees have left bad tastes in the mouth of fans and little to be desired.

It is true that referees are humans and hence fallible to human error. But when that fallibility becomes the only consistency of their professionalism, then questions need to be asked about whether they are up to the job. There is no denying the fact that the Premier League is played at a very fast paced tempo. There is also no doubt that the job becomes doubly difficult as the referees are expected to make split second decisions; and in their defence, they don’t have the benefit of TV replays that fans and TV pundits enjoy. However, some of the decisions by some referees have been downright below standard.

The most recent was during the FA Cup, the oldest cup competition in modern times and one of the most watched, between Chelsea and Tottenham, during which the referee awarded a “ghost goal” that even surprised the Chelsea players. In the past week, we have seen penalties given for non existed fouls at Old Trafford, courtesy of Ashley Young’s antics. When Wigan FC played Chelsea the other day, we saw how a goal was allowed to stand even though there were 3 Chelsea players a mile offside, including the goal scorer Branislav Ivanovic. Replays showed that the linesman could not have been better positioned to see it. The goal was inexplicably allowed to stand.

These monumental blunders have put football and its governing body in the spot light, with the loudest clamour for technological intervention coming from the FA and pundits in England. The Professional Footballers’ Association Chief Executive, Gordon Taylor says that football is “lagging behind the times” as one of the few sports not to use technology to verify referees’ decisions”. He feels that it is perverse not to use technology. That is a complete cop out in my book. To compare football to cricket and rugby, which use video technology to verify contentious decisions may be bordering on the ridiculous; considering that in cricket, players even have time for tea break. Players like Scott Parker and Frank Lampard, incidentally a beneficiary of these blunders, have all come out in support of the introduction of technology. Other managers have joined the band wagon as well.

Despite the huge clamour for “video referees”, there is a silent majority that believes that such an introduction among others, may take away all the excitement from the beautiful game. I subscribe to that view and that the game will become too mechanical and hence take away the human element. If this is to go ahead, who is to say that a game would not be refereed by a robot thousands of miles away? We now see wars are being fought by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) from thousands of miles away. Who is to say that an African Nations Cup final would not be officiated by a referee in Sri Lanka, if this is to go ahead in future? It may be far-fetched but just think of the possibilities; especially in a world where “cutting cost” is the fashion statement of big organisations.

Instead of fans, pundits and the FA alike calling for the introduction of technology, we should wake up to the fact that the “refereeing standards in the English Premier League are dismal”. There are many reasons for this. The one common flaw in the refereeing set up is the fact that “most referees have never kicked a ball in anger”. Most of the referees worldwide have never played the professional game. Many have their main jobs as bankers, barbers, magicians, or clinicians etc. The irony is that these guys know the “laws and rules” of the game but they don’t “know the game”. There is an unquestionable difference between “knowing the game” (which the individual had lived and played) and “knowing the rules of the game” (which the individual may have just studied for and answered the exam questions correctly).

Simply put, the referees studied the rules and “tend to apply the rule” to the letter. For example, Ashley Young earned Manchester United penalties against QPR and Aston Villa. According to the rules, which both referees applied, they were fouls irrespective of the degree of contacts. But an ex-player would have been better psyched to determine whether the contacts on both occasions were enough to send the player crashing down so dramatically. The ex-player can even predict the player’s intention just by way of his movement, because he had been there before. But to the trained referee, all he needs to see is the contact in the box and it’s a penalty, “according to the law”. We all know that rules and laws are there to be interpreted and with that come discretion. Unfortunately, the referees of today don’t have the benefit of such discretions because they don’t have that experience to draw on.

In years gone by, the “dark art” of players diving was an exclusive domain of “foreign players”; according to the English media. But it is fast becoming an epidemic of the beautiful English game. We all saw how Andy Carrol, having left the Newcastle FC goalkeeper for dead, decided to take a tumble unchallenged, when it was easier to score. The accusations of diving have become the talking points of the game recently and at this rate, footballers will give the British Olympic bosses a selection headache if they decide to take part in the diving events when the games come to London in July this year. Tom Daley would be forgiven to feel threatened for his slot in the British Diving team.

It is difficult to deny that Barcelona FC is the best team ever. But beneath their near immortal artistry lies the “dark art” of diving which they have perfected to a tee. It is therefore no wonder that they receive the highest number of free kick in their favour in any given game. It is no wonder that games involving Barcelona are littered with “stop start stop start”. Just ask Mourhino or watch out when they come to Stamford Bridge this week. It is also not surprising that in years gone by, Italian football was seen as the most boring; because footballers spent more time lying than standing. In their defence, referees are not all to blame for the dismal standard of their decisions; as players should also take responsibility for making their jobs difficult.  

Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that his player may have gone down too easily and referee Martin Atkinson acknowledged his mistake for the “ghost goal”. These may not change the outcomes of those games but will go a long way to restore some credence to the game, if more referees and managers made more effort to do the same. Instead of hastily calling for the introduction of technology, the FA, Uefa, FIFA and all stakeholders in the game should do more to help the officials by improving their standards. There should be a significant level of “consistency” in the way referees interpret the rules. It is no good running to technology, like the bad worker who blames his tools, for righting the wrongs of human error.

There are a lot of ex-players on the scrap heap, with some fighting their demons or trying to make sense of their lives after football. There are a lot of semi professionals who have played the game to some level but not good enough to make the grade. These guys may have chosen football as their dream careers but football has not chosen them. These are the guys that need to be encouraged to take up refereeing as an alternative to their broken dreams. This is not to say that you cannot be a good referee if you have not played the game, but it will make you a better one if you have.

Sadly, FIFA appears to bow to the pressure as plans to start final tests on two goal-line technology systems are sue to start later this month; certainly the death of football as we know it. Instead of improving the standards of refereeing, Gordon Taylor believes that “referees need support because their errors are subject to more criticism”.  But he sensationally stated that because of the financial pressure in the game these days, players are damned if they dive and damned if they don’t. Talk about mixed messages. I rest my case.

Lest we forget, my sympathies go to the family of the Italian player, Piermario Morosini who passed away while playing football last week. On a brighter note, a big “welcome back” to Fabrice Muamba, who was technically “dead” for 78 minutes in similar circumstances.  Talk about modern day Lazarus eh. Hang in there buddy.

May the last man please dive before you leave the pitch?

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