Football must face up to dangers of hi-tech option

A penalty that TV evidence showed to be unjust ended Leicester's FA Cup dream - but, asks Phil Shaw, is a fourth official watching video replays the right solution?
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The Independent Online
It was Spain's coach, Javier Clemente, who spoke out last autumn against using technology to prevent referees from making mistakes. "Arguments would end if football did that," he said, "and without arguments football will die." Such logic may be lost on Martin O'Neill right now.

After his side lost an FA Cup replay at Chelsea late in extra time on Wednesday, the Leicester City manager could not conceal his outrage. The only goal came from a penalty after the referee, Mike Reed, ruled that Matt Elliott had fouled Erland Johnsen, although television replays showed that the defender made no contact.

The incident generated a flurry of suggestions yesterday about hi-tech back-up for match officials. They ranged from the sensible - the machines used in tennis to indicate whether the ball is over the line - to the pseudo sci-fi - the electronic tagging of players, like delinquents, to determine relative positions in offside decisions.

Among the more plausible concepts given fresh currency by the controversy was that of an additional referee, stationed in front of a TV monitor. The game's world governing body, Fifa, has sanctioned a match between France and Sweden next month in which the referee will be able to study replays on a screen at the side of the pitch.

If the technology is available, runs that strand of opinion which views gadgetry as a metaphor for progress, it is wrong not to exploit it. Especially when, as happened at Stamford Bridge, the human eye has been deceived.

After all, other sports have benefited from the use of action replays and the freeze-frame facility. The photo finish is well established in horse racing, swimming and athletics. Test cricket has introduced a third umpire to arbitrate on run-outs and stumpings. Moreover, football already uses video evidence, with referees often invited to re-examine an incident leading to a caution or sending-off. If they admit they were wrong, the offence is expunged from the record.

There is, however, a vast difference between a referee taking a second look over tea and biscuits at Lancaster Gate and the kind of instant decision- making process that might have prevented Leicester's exit. Part of football's universal appeal is its fast, physical and totally unpredictable nature. In the words of Graham Kelly, the FA's chief executive, it is a "fluid" sport compared with cricket and tennis, which he sees as "static".

Rather than relieving the strain on the referee, a "third eye" could actually increase it. To take an example from the final of Euro 96, the Czech Republic's goal against Germany came from a penalty after Matthias Sammer was deemed to have felled Karel Poborsky. In theory, having decided unfair contact had been made, the referee might have asked his colleague in the stand to check whether or not the challenge was inside the box.

If the answer were "yes", that would appear to be the end of the matter. But the Germans would have been entitled to argue that it was not a foul in the first place. The rows could rage on, turning football into a staccato sport not unlike its distant grid-iron cousin. The relentless tempo of the best British matches might be sacrificed as the players milled about the pitch, awaiting a verdict from on high.

If policing the penalty award is fraught with difficulties, what of the offside decision? In that Euro 96 final, Stefan Kuntz was certainly in an offside position when Oliver Bierhoff scored the winner, but was he interfering with play? No amount of computer wizardry could have taken responsibility for that decision out of the officials' hands.

Yet replays revealed that the "goal" by Spain's Julio Salinas against England, flagged offside by a linesman, ought to have stood. Synchronised cameras - one on the player passing the ball and the other receiving it - would theoretically have enabled the referee to eliminate any doubt (and eliminated England several days earlier).

But do the public want the game held up while disputes are pored over? And which decisions will be referred? Unless a line is drawn, it is easy to envisage packs of players demanding that the referee consult the video every few minutes.

Three decades on, the debate over Geoff Hurst's second goal in the World Cup final can still sustain an Anglo-German meeting for hours. As Snr Clemente intimated, in what was an exemplary display of magnanimity in view of Salinas' misfortune at Wembley, arguments are an integral part of a game whose charm is bound up in its very imperfection.

Judgement day: Should the game adopt new technology?

n Penalties are difficult. It is the referee's opinion that counts. He has to decide: `Was it a foul, wasn't it a foul?' The question of fouls is the most difficult area. The others are comparatively simple. We are talking about stock market flotations, a lot of money involved, but will it be used on Hackney Marshes on a Sunday afternoon and will it be football? We are still in the middle of the working party at the moment and, as someone who has trouble setting their video recorder could testify, it is a little bit of a complex situation. Graham Kelly, Football Association chief executive, on the prospect of using technological aids to assist referees' decisions.

n I think it's inevitable that there will be discussions about whether technology can be used to ensure referees make the right decisions, but it will be a question of degree. Technology could be used to decide whether the ball has crossed the line but, in the case of grey areas such as contact between players and handball decisions, it will surely be impossible to have anyone other than the referee making on-the-spot decisions. If it's going to take three or four minutes for a fourth official studying four or five different camera angles on a video, that would cause more problems than it solves. Gordon Taylor, Professional Footballers' Association chief executive.

n If we use the cameras to stop the games after every incident, you would never finish the match. Sepp Blatter, Fifa general secretary.

n If we had a fourth official in the stand looking at a video, we could see games being held up for several minutes. That would make a nonsense of the game and it would clearly be impractical. John Camkin, League Managers' Association secretary.

n We are not adverse to new technology. We would have to look at it, but it would have to benefit the game in general. What we all have to remember is that football has always been a controversial game. So if we have a third eye in the stand, how long are the crowd and players going to be prepared to wait before a decision comes back to the referee, and how many camera angles will you need to ensure that decision is absolutely right? Arthur Smith, Referees' Association general secretary.

n The key is to improve both communications and information to the referee and ultimately we would want to record the position of players and the ball at every given moment. With cameras it is difficult to cover every angle, which is why I would suggest radio links and the electronic tagging of players. Professor Nigel Allinson, University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology (commissioned by the FA).