James Lawton: Risible Riley shows why the game needs a technological revolution

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The Independent Online

A few hours after one of the most pivotal games in the multi-billion pound Premier League season had been horribly and irredeemably distorted by the rankest referee error, the richest, most ballyhooed sporting collision on earth was preserved in its most strenuous competitive values with a minimum of fuss and delay.

What happened in the Super Bowl XLIII was that Ken Whisenhunt, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, twice made use of challenges permitted him by the National Football League. On both occasions he was successful, which meant that though he lost, narrowly, to his former club Pittsburgh Steelers he did not do so without any sickening sense that his fate had been decided by the flawed judgement of match officials.

Chelsea's Luiz Felipe Scolari would no doubt have given a lot for a similar conclusion when his key player Frank Lampard was dismissed so shockingly by the referee Mike Riley in Sunday's match against Liverpool at Anfield.

But of course Scolari had no such opportunity. He had to suck in his breath and live with a credo that, when you think about it, makes a 21st century mockery of a sport which has become increasingly a creature sustained by television. We all know how it goes, "these things level out, the professional just has to get on with it." This is in spite of the fact that the world has just seen a terrible injustice to an individual player and a hammer-blow to the idea of even competition.

The briefest use of television's re-run facility would have enabled Riley to step back from his appalling mis-reading of the incident between Lampard and Liverpool's Xabi Alonso.

With the benefit of several alternative angles, as opposed to the one which permitted him only a backview of Lampard's involvement, Riley would presumably have seen what the entire television audience saw.

He would have seen that the Chelsea man played the ball, successfully and that what happened subsequently, made it impossible to blame Lampard more than Alonso for the collision. Then, while the Spaniard made the quickest possible recovery, miraculous or otherwise, he could have rescinded his error, restored Lampard to the action and ensured that the game finished with 11 players on each side – or if not the finish, at least until it reached the point where Lampard's team-mate Jose Bosingwa rammed his studs into the back of Yossi Benayoun in full view of the assistant referee.

There should of course be little debate in the matter of Scolari's appeal against Lampard's eviction – and the possibility that he might serve a suspension. However tenderly the sensibilities of referees are considered, Riley's decision has to be revoked. The trouble is that in one hugely important way the referee's blunder could not be rectified from the moment it was committed. The balance of a match – in which Liverpool were undoubtedly the better side but one not guaranteed a goal to prove it before Chelsea became hopelessly stretched while fighting, under-manned, a late bombardment – had been broken beyond repair.

This, once again, begs a question. Why is it that if American football, rugby, tennis and, to some extent cricket, cheerfully accept the role of instant video reappraisal, football cannot? It is because of the insane idea that referees, unlike any other part of the game, have to be given some strange status of infallibility. In the old days it was unquestionably right to protect the authority of the referee. Without the means of immediate video clarification, football indeed had to accept that an erring referee from time to time was a problem that was both inevitable and unsolvable. It is not so now.

Riley's madness could have been wiped out in less than a minute. The Super Bowl decisions were remade in that time and with no complaint from anyone from the sidelines to the eves of the packed stadium, despite the fact that an extremely precise judgement had to be made on the distribution of tangled limbs. The Arizona coach, because of his two successful challenges, would have been permitted a third had he deemed it necessary. Like all his fellow professionals he had, we can see, been given the benefit of a seriously registered doubt.

In football, though, we have another priority. It is to do with that insistence that referees have to be assessed at some separate level, that somehow they are beyond the live professional scrutiny to which everyone else, however erroneously, have to submit.

Reviews of Riley's decision were almost universally unflattering, ranging from harsh to "lousy". Lousy said it best but that can't have been too much comfort to Lampard, who, it has to be said behaved with impeccable self-restraint after being shown the red card. Lampard doesn't always walk with the angels but on this occasion his bemused acceptance was nothing if not eloquent.

He was saying that he knew he could do nothing to change the mind of a referee who had delivered his verdict from professional sport's most peculiarly defended mountain-top. The referee was, until the action was over, beyond correction. That he had erred so badly was only part of the scandal. Worse still, football believed that even such egregious misjudgement was, at this late hour, just part of the game.

The Boss makes perfect sense

The BBC may have been pushing matters rather insanely when it compared the XLIII Super Bowl with Barack Obama's capture of Washington, but what else could make the world's most powerful nation feel so good about itself on an annual basis?

On top of the standard menu – last quarter Hail Mary assault, this time by the fabled Pittsburgh Steelers and a miracle catch by a former drug dealer striding down redemption road – this year we had the definitive half-time show.

An absurd concept, of course, stopping an elemental sporting battle in mid-collision for a burst of star-spangled showbiz but if you really want to quicken the nation's pulse, Bruce Springsteen has always suggested himself as the man for the job.

Finally, more to appease his band than gratify himself, the Boss said he would do it. One consequence of his riveting performance, perhaps not surprisingly, was a supercharged second half. Even in the wee hours of dear old England, it would have been perverse not to turn off the kettle and take a cold beer – straight from the bottle, of course.

Federer tears define limit of power

Sir Bobby Charlton, a man of powerful emotion, always insists that the time to cry is not when you're beaten but when you've won.

However, we can be sure that he will make an honourable exception in the case of the tears that Roger Federer could not quell in the wake of his latest defeat by Rafael Nadal.

These, after all, were tears not of pique but those that came when one of the greatest champions sport has ever seen was forced into the recognition that however hard he prepares, and sublimely he plays, he may indeed have reached the limits of his power.

Nadal, with whom he has been locked in sublime rivalry for a year now, once again had too much strength, too much resilience for Federer as he collected his sixth Grand Slam title.

No doubt it was this reality that ambushed Federer while he was engaged in the post-game pleasantries in Melbourne. You might say he has had his time in the sun, that if he remains one short of Pete Sampras's all-time mark of 14 major titles, it is no mean place to be. If you are of a certain disposition, you might also say, "Roger, old boy, get over yourself." Yet that, unsurprisingly, was not the remotest inclination of the magnificent Nadal. He put his arm around Federer's shoulder, reminded him he was the greatest of champions, and said that he could understand easily how he felt.

Who better to make such a declaration? Who better to know what it is to play as well as Federer (left) did in the second and fourth sets and yet still lose as the man who was obliged to put down that extraordinary fight to regain lost ground?

Certainly the instinct here is not to see Nadal as the superb young gun who shot down Federer. More it is, surely, that he has helped define his greatness, both as a champion and a man.

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