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Monday, June 28, 2010
Time for FIFA to admit it's wrong

Martin Williamson

FIFA's steadfast refusal to contemplate using the mass of gadgetry available to broadcasters is, rightly, under more fire than ever before after the events of Sunday. While any fundamental change to the game should not be rushed through as a knee-jerk reaction following a poor weekend for officialdom, this is something that has been brushed under the carpet for too long.

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The justifications of the FIFA cabal for doing nothing are out of the stone ages - Sepp Blatter's ludicrous explanation that the public likes nothing more than to debate "incidents" confirming, were it needed, he is as far out of touch with the bulk of fans as it is possible to be.

The speed and sophistication of replays and technology is now such that almost instant clarification is possible. Almost all other major sports now use technology to back up on-field officials, so why not FIFA?

The simple answer seems to be out-and-out pig-headedness. FIFA claims the cost is prohibitive; the delays would be excessive; and it would undermine the authority of the referee and linesmen. However, these are identical to the arguments put forward by opponents of the introduction of replays and referrals in cricket almost two decades ago. None of them proved accurate.

"Their use now feels completely commonplace," Andrew Miller, UK editor of ESPNcricinfo, says. "Especially for line decisions, of which there are only ever a handful in the course of a match, and certainly they are far less frequent than the sort of freak incident that took place in Bloemfontein - which was important enough to justify a delay. The time used up in getting the right verdict is clearly time well spent. It's a no-brainer in an era of instant TV replays."

Cost excuses are a smokescreen. Firstly FIFA will make almost $2 billion from this World Cup, so it is hardly cash-strapped. And there is no need for every match across the world to have such technology in place. Major tournaments would be a start and work down from there.

Delays? All other sports have come to terms with this, so why can't football, especially given replays are available in seconds? If FIFA was so bothered by stopping the flow of the game then it would act against endless play-acting, not to mention the end-of-game tedium as strings of players slowly amble off as they are substituted. It is also missing a commercial trick. Sponsoring the replays would be a big earner, although the downside for the TV audience is that broadcasters would undoubtedly go down the US route and lobby for referral delays as an excuse to slip in an ad or two.

But rugby union had the same fears before it embraced TV replays. "There were concerns they would strip the sport of one of its most attractive characteristics - continuity," explains Graham Jenkins, senior editor of ESPNscrum. "Those fears were allayed once the technology had been given a chance to provide clarity. Developments in the TV coverage of games were such that the sport could no longer allow referees to make key judgement calls when cameras told a more accurate story.

"It is now an accepted part of the sport and any break in the action is negligible and often adds to the dramatic nature of a big game."

Given that the bulk of replays would take place when a break in play is already taking place - often as a goal is being celebrated - then the review could be happening simultaneously. It might even help answer the question of what on earth the fourth official is there for.

And what of the authority of the referee and linesmen? Can anything undermine them more than the knowledge - shared with the entire stadium and global TV audience, as was the case on Sunday night - that a decision was wrong but there was nothing that any of them could do about it?

"The role of referee is difficult enough in today's modern game and any helping hand that technology can offer should be embraced enthusiastically," Jenkins says. "The fans in the stadium and those in their armchairs deserve that and the sport as a whole can only benefit in the long run."

Again, if FIFA was serious about backing officials it would clamp down on divers and cheats who try to con them and get fellow players sent off.

The hardest question is over the extent of any review system. Goal-line technology is a must ... but what about offsides? Clearly the winners here would be the defenders, given that an attacker could hardly appeal against a wrong call against them, but that should not be a reason to continue allowing errors. Technology is not a solution, it is an aid.

And, Miller adds, football should learn from cricket where many believe too much is referred. "The speed and fluidity of football means that it would be daft to interject for every tackle and disputed throw-in, but for the significant moments - not least red cards, when there's often a melee around the referee anyway - a second opinion would clearly cut through the controversy."

FIFA is on even shakier ground regarding the use of post-match reviews to clean up the game. It continues to be reluctant to use TV evidence to act against fakers and divers, and yet at the same time refers to the beauty of the game.

Blatter and his sidekicks have a duty to serve football. By their failure to acknowledge what everyone else can see so clearly, they are doing the opposite.

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