Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Officials & Technology

Chameleons are an interesting animal. They can change colour to blend in with their surroundings, which is quite a remarkable trait. They also have independent control of their eyes, which is to say, they can look in two directions at once.

Football officials are, in these respects, a little more limited. On the whole they do their best to be invisible on the pitch with regard to their decisions, and they do try to see everything simultaneously (particularly when calling offsides). Unfortunately, all officials registered to the Football Association belong to a species called Homo Sapiens, which can only see in one direction at a time and is, sadly, very fallible.

We saw an example of that against Middlesbrough. Suddenly the referee's assistant became very, very visible. The ball was thought to have crossed the line, when in fact it hadn't. It's unlikely that the linesman in question actually saw the ball while it was in Mark Schwartzer's arms, given that the keeper's body was between the ball and linesman at the time. (Officials, like all other humans, also lack X-ray vision.)

He made the call. It was a bad one. Instant uproar.

No matter how much training these officials get, they are going to make mistakes. Some say this is part of the charm of the sport. Others say that it takes away from the skill of the players by adding an unnecessary random element.

Well, why are we playing, and watching, football? For entertainment. What's entertaining about a football match? Obviously, watching two teams in a battle of might and mind. Determination, tactical prowess, skill, strength, and speed. That's entertaining.

Random elements add a different kind of entertainment - unpredictability. There's already a good deal of unpredictability in football. Each player could have the performance of his life, or have a nightmare of a game. The managers might get it right, or wrong. Nobody can predict the outcome of any game reliably and consistently or there'd be no such thing as bookies.

If you knew the outcome of a game, would you watch it?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I sure would. I often do, when I watch games I've taped on the VCR. Like I said: two teams in a battle of might and mind. Determination, tactical prowess, skill, strength, and speed. That's entertaining. It's not just about who wins, but about how they win.

So now I wonder, should we introduce technology to help the officials? As long as it doesn't interfere with the entertainment, I can't see why not. There's plenty of unpredictability in a game of football so I'm not concerned about removing that tiny element that is due to the officials being fallible.

The only other way it could spoil my enjoyment is by intervention into the game itself. Lengthy delays would spoil it. But as long as a decision could be made quickly, and correctly, how could it possibly affect the enjoyment of the game?

As I see it, these are the requirements for successful integration of technology into decision making in football:

(1) The referee is the focal point for all decisions, as far as the players and observers are concerned. I believe we can't have a big screen saying "GOAL" or "NO GOAL" - that takes away some of the referee's authority. The referee should be informed invisibly.
(2) Technology does not make decisions. Technology is used as another "eye" for the referee to observe what is taking place on the field. The referee uses this information to make a decision.
(3) Decisions are made quickly. Offsides need to be called almost instantly - this is difficult technologically but if we can't do it, then we shouldn't try. I reckon goals can have a delay of a couple of seconds at most. Sending-off offences can perhaps be delayed 10 seconds or so.

It follows that having a fifth official review video replays of incidents isn't going to work, except perhaps in the case of serious sending-off. I don't think replays will work for offside or goal-line decisions, simply because they can't be made quickly enough.

The new technology of having a transmitting chip inside the ball should work well, I think. The referee can be informed whether the ball crosses the line invisibly and instantly.

How can we use this same technology for offside decisions? I wonder if we could have transmitting chips embedded in the boots of the players to establish their positions on the field, and an accelerometer in the ball to detect when it's kicked. (A more advanced device could also detect when the location of the ball matches the location of a player.) If a player is offside at the moment the ball is kicked, then a gadget in the linesman's pocket can vibrate. It would be a challenging engineering task but it might be worth a try.

Maybe then the officials can see in two places at once, and become a little less visible.

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