Technology: Time for football to upgrade
It’s astonishing to compare what is possible in the 21st century compared to how it used to be. For instance, the way we view television is remarkable.
The advent of interactive digital technology means the home viewer can select, augment and interact with what they watch in an entirely new way, and not just at home but on the move on a range of devices. It is actually possible, during a live game and whilst sitting on a bus, to turn off the sound of Andy Townsend. Slim mobile phones are now also computers, video screens, TVs, audio systems, cameras, navigation tools and much more. As technology continues to advance at a pace unimaginable even 10 years ago, the application of it in sport hasn’t quite kept up.
Some sports were quick to adopt and adapt technology that already existed, such as TV replays, and some technology is even driven by the needs of sports – take Hawkeye for example. The attitudes towards applying innovation in both technology and laws of the game varies widely though, depending on the sport. If sports were mobile phone users, you’d probably say the NFL is an early adopter owning the latest iPhone or Android version – sleek, slick and used constantly. This is partly due to the stop-start nature of the game but nonetheless, the fact that a free NFL app can provide fans with real-time stats and play-by-play analysis is pretty impressive.
More striking is that American football has been miking up the refs and providing them with video assistance since as early as 1986. You’d probably then say that sports like tennis and cricket, supposedly run by old school fuddy-duddy blazers, are also smartphone users. With Hawkeye, video replays, hotspots and so on, they’re firmly iPhone 4S users, possibly even iPhone 5 or a snazzy Samsung. Even both codes of rugby have seen some element of innovation whether it be instant replays or even simply putting players ‘on report’ in rugby league. Technology in rugby is probably the equivalent of using an early iPhone or HTC.
Then there’s football. No video replays for key decisions like offsides, penalties or red cards. Confusing rules on retrospective punishment, and no allowance for post-match reviews to punish simulation or other instances of cheating and foul play. Having just introduced goal-line technology, something that will probably get used half a dozen times a season at best, football has just upgraded to one of the early Motorola flip phones and is smugly patting itself on the back at the nice ‘clacking’ sound it makes. Worryingly, football seems to cherish its status as a laggard in the world of sports. Any debate on the subject rapidly elicits a common set of views (or misconceptions) on how technology and innovation would impact the game:
- “It would slow the game down”
- “It would undermine the referees on the pitch”
- “Football’s about people, not technology”
- “It would take away the talking points from the game”
Each of these views on closer inspection is nonsense but they remain barriers to change because there is yet to be any sensible and comprehensive debate on technology by the FA, UEFA or FIFA. Would it slow the game down? Only if you assume that every decision is subject to some form of review. With the game being so free-flowing, technology could not be employed in a blanket approach and without some amendments to the laws of the game.
A pragmatic and sensible approach would see, for instance, only certain decisions being video reviewed and only where the officials are sufficiently unsure but can let play continue – offsides, penalty decisions, tackles preventing goalscoring opportunities. Would it undermine referees? Surely what undermines referees is that every weekend, their decisions are scrutinised by pundits and journalists, and endlessly replayed in super slow-motion from numerous angles, whilst they only get the benefit of seeing it once, in real-time. Look no further than the recent furore over post-match comments by Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes, comments that came with the benefit of instant replays and slow-motion footage. Referees make mistakes, they always will because they’re human. But technology coupled with changes in the laws can minimise those mistakes.
Where referees are unsure of a big decision, rather than force them to go one way or the other, why not allow them the benefit of a video official reviewing a replay? Or where an incident happens off the ball or in the periphery of the ref’s vision, why not allow him to put the players involved on report and be dealt with in a post-match review? And lastly, if players are punished retrospectively, for say, diving, would that not drastically decrease how often it happens rather than undermine the ref? Surely even Ashley Young will rethink a dive if he’s fined or banned.
Yes, football is about people and not technology but those people are the fans and the players, both of whom generally have a vested interest in knowing that the decisions being made are correct. The same applies for the argument that technology would remove talking points. Who can honestly say they’ve gone to a game and heard someone say “Ooh, I can’t wait to see this ref today, I’m really looking forward to his performance”? The referee and assistants are not the participants. They are simply there to enforce the laws of the game – in an ideal world, they’re invisible and never make an error. Really, the only question that needs answering is this: is it reasonable to expect a referee and two assistants to spot everything that happens between twenty-two players moving at high-speed, some of whom may seek to cheat the officials? So why not give them as much help as possible. There’s plenty of other talking points on the pitch, incorrect decisions don’t need to be part of them.
Yet, astonishingly, modern football still clings to a world where portly middle-aged blokes can make decisions that mean billion-pound professional football clubs can win or lose a trophy. Much like the reaction when today’s teenagers see the early brick-sized mobile phones, in 20 years time, hopefully we’ll also be wondering how things ever worked this way.