Encouraging signs from FIFA in goal-line technology debate

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

Friedemann Vogel/FIFA/FIFA/Getty ImagesFIFA Head of Referees Massimo Busacca is a proponent of both goal-line technology and additional assistant referees.

At many FIFA press conferences, you'll see two plastic bottles in front of each participant up on stage. One will be water and, should their throats get a little dry, it will be what the speakers turn to. The other will be Coca Cola, one of FIFA's sponsors.

In years of attending these things, I don't remember seeing anyone touch the Coke (and, invariably, it's not diet either: it's proper, full-fledged, full-fat Coke). I doubt it's because they don't have a taste for it, maybe they just deem it an unseemly beverage for serious FIFA officials and professional athletes.

In any case, all that changed on Friday. Massimo Busacca, FIFA's Head of Referees downed his Coke with gusto. It almost came across as a way of setting himself apart. He's IN FIFA, but not OF FIFA.

And he had the courage to state something that is so common sense, so obviously right that it's not surprising that neither FIFA nor UEFA are saying it.

"We've had two big changes in the past year, goal-line technology and additional assistant referees behind the goals," he said. "I don't see why it's an either/or situation. They are two innovations that do different things. I think in the future they could both be used together."

Bingo!

What we're talking about here is two good ideas, both beneficial to the game.

Can we determine with near absolute certainty whether or not a ball has crossed the line?

Can we add officials so that instead of just one referee there are more sets of eyes on the players capable of seeing things the referee can't see, viewing things he can see from a different angle and acting as a deterrent?

The answer to both questions is yes. And it's a shame that the two of the most powerful men in the game -- Sepp Blatter, who runs FIFA, and Michel Platini, who looks after UEFA -- have turned this into an either/or struggle.

There's a back story to this, of course. Blatter was re-elected FIFA president amid much controversy following the acrimonious bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. He originally said he would step down when his term expired in 2015 -- 17 years after he was originally elected back in 1998 -- but there is plenty of speculation that he'll change his mind and stick around. Platini, who many expect to run for the FIFA gig in 2015, obviously won't be too happy if Blatter does a one-eighty.

But that's where politics bleeds into real life. For a long time both Blatter and Platini were very much of the "referees-do-the-best-they-can-nothing-to-see-here" and "if-there-were-no-refereeing-mistakes-you'd-have-nothing-to-talk-about" schools. They loathed the idea of technology and felt the less you tinkered with the game, the better.

Then Platini got ambitious. And he began to push the "extra referee" -- or AAR, Additional Assistant Referees, to use FIFA parlance -- project.

Was it a way to stave off the arrival of the technology he hates so much? Was it a genuine attempt to limit human error by adding more humans into the mix?

Who knows? Either way, there was so much initial support for it that Blatter couldn't very well stand in his way. Plus, it wasn't his idea. So the "International Board" -- the body that actually looks after the Laws of the Game and where fifty percent of members are FIFA appointed -- eventually passed Platini's AAR proposal, but with one key caveat. The AARs behind the goal could stand there, they could communicate with the referee via radio, they could signal things, but they could not make any hand gestures whatsoever.

It was a small measure, but a key one. Because, you see, officials -- even when there are extra ones -- still make mistakes. And when we see someone just standing there seemingly doing nothing and some refereeing error occurs, we get even angrier than we would otherwise.

The idea that the AARs were "useless" and "did nothing" started gaining popularity, despite the fact that there was evidence to the contrary. Rather than framing the debate as "how can we make the AARs better?" it became "let's just get rid of them".

Naturally Blatter wasn't displeased by this. And when an AAR missed Marko Devic's goal against England at the Euros, the FIFA president was ready to jump on the goal line technology bandwagon, tweeting that it was "a necessity".

To which Platini replied with his usual anti-goalline technology schtick. It's too expensive. It's a slippery slope. Soon you'll want instant replays. Games will last six hours. And so on, with the usual arguments which, unless you're ideologically anti-technology, you probably find inane.

And so, while these two bicker, the game loses out. UEFA won't adopt GLT in the Champions League or the Euros, saying that money is better spent elsewhere. (And, indeed, because it really IS expensive, odds are most of the world outside the big European leagues won't either.) And FIFA won't have AARs in its competitions because Blatter doesn't deem them "necessary".

From where I sit the obvious solution is to try both. AARs aren't perfect -- in part because nobody trains to be an AAR since it's a new position and so, as with all things, there are bound to be growing pains -- but more eyes are better than fewer. And GLT is simply a common sense no-brainer, at least at the highest level, where it can be economically justified.
I get the feeling there's at least one coke-swilling maverick former referee who agrees with me.

And the fact that he's willing to sit at a FIFA table and not dump all over an idea simply because it comes from UEFA and that the FIFA boss doesn't like it is encouraging.

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