The dangerous appliance of science

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The Independent Online
If It was as easy as people imagine for sport to take full and immediate advantage of the latest advances in science and technology, football could even now be planning to solve one of its more irritating problems by finding a perfect referee and running off a couple of hundred clones.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. Genetic science might be making spectacular progress but even our most eminent brains are far from reaching that high peak of knowledge from which the perfect referee would be visible.

So, regrettably, we must place the cloners in the long queue of outside agencies whose expertise we fondly think can save the game from the sort of distress that on Wednesday sent Leicester City into the dark and stormy Chelsea night weeping the tears of the brutally thwarted.

Graham Kelly, secretary of the Football Association, announced within hours of that contentious penalty at Stamford Bridge that the FA are examining the more accessible realms of modern technology to judge if it is practical, and desirable, to introduce foolproof electronic adjudication to settle such disputes. If I was in the video camera industry, I would hesitate before rubbing my hands in anticipation of a big order. Football's willingness to embrace the wonders of the age is slightly dubious in that they haven't even gone clockwork yet.

Leaving aside the lamentations of Leicester for a moment, there has long been a case for the timing of a football match to be taken out of the hands, or off the wrist to be more accurate, of the referee. It is one of football's fundamental rules that a game should last 90 minutes and the number of games of exactly that duration on any weekend could probably be counted on the hands of Big Ben.

The precise time at which the final whistle is blown seems an arbitrary decision based on some vague estimate of what the commentators call "time added on for stoppages" and when the referee deems it convenient. Rugby league's independently operated hooter is an altogether more efficient and fairer system and should have been adopted by football, and rugby union for that matter, decades ago.

In any game in which questions of fact need urgently to be decided, there is every justification for using the latest technology; timing, measuring, electronic evidence of whether a ball has crossed a line... it would be wrong to ignore any help available.

But to extend that assistance to matters of judgement in a swiftly moving game is a dangerous path to take and I agree with Fifa's reluctance to take even the first step along it. What works for games of intermittent action like tennis, cricket or American football, would inflict on soccer a braking influence that could do harm.

There is hardly a grown man amongst us who in his time has not cried for the dispatch to damnation of the souls of a score of referees. It has been thus since the dawn of the game. The irony is that we are more conscious of the grounds for our complaints because of what we see on the very appliances with which the game is being urged to solve them.

Indeed, rather than endorse the official use of video recordings perhaps it would be easier to ban them from the game altogether, especially play- backs on stadium screens and on television, so that we can all go back to watching the game in its raw and natural state. The resulting reduction in the number of armchair know-alls would not be a high price to pay.

None of which is intended to make light of Leicester's torment. It was a grievous way to slide out of the Cup but, nevertheless, the furore tended to get out of hand. While the penalty provided a legitimate reason to re-open the great video debate it did not justify the attacks on the referee, Mike Reed. The fact that he booked 10 players suggests that he had a less than brilliant game - although I didn't get that impression from the BBC's potted version - but his penalty decision did not deserve to be described by words like ludicrous or disgraceful.

Replays show that it was not a penalty, and when he eventually brings himself to watch them he will probably agree, but from where he was positioned at the time his decision that Chelsea's Erland Johnsen was sent crashing into Spencer Prior by a challenge from Prior's team-mate Matt Elliott was excusable. In fact, Elliott didn't make contact but Johnsen veered into Prior all the same.

All the more reason, you might say, for the incident to be reviewed by an off-pitch official. But, as much as we would have welcomed Leicester being spared that cruel penalty, if the rules were altered to make such a revision possible it is not difficult to imagine the number of appeals that would clog the game's flow. And how would you restart the match if the appeal succeeded? A bounce-up at the place of the alleged offence, which would not be fair to the defending side, or one at the centre spot, which would be equally unfair to the attackers? Complications abound.

There is a far less sympathetic way of reacting to Leicester's dismay than wanting to change the rules. It involves the quiet acceptance that football is capable of gross unfairness. This quality seals its resemblance to life itself and you attempt at great peril to extract from the game the slings and arrows and make it an exact science.

The hard-headed view is that Leicester suffered not because of any shortcomings of the referee but because, like Chelsea, they were in a situation in which heartbreak was unavoidable. When a Cup tie reaches the last five minutes of extra-time, something nasty is sure to happen to one or more of the tired occupants of that pitch. It may be a bad mistake by a defender, an open goal missed by a forward or a right stumer by the referee. And if those misfortunes are avoided, it is inevitable that a player is going to cock up a penalty in the shoot-out.

Those caught up in that drama have no one else to blame for not being able to settle the contest sooner in a manner more fitting. The object of the game is to win in 90 minutes. Once you fail to do that your fate is placed in unkind hands and it is no good moaning about it.

We keep wanting sport to be what it cannot be - incontrovertibly fair. If it was that, the abiding intrigue and fascination could never be maintained. God, forgive us our fierce controversies but leave us our imperfections that we may have something to argue about tomorrow.

Panic is setting into rugby since Thursday's High Court decision to set aside the 30-day ban the Welsh Rugby Union imposed on Ebbw Vale's forward Mark Jones after he was sent off for fighting with the Swansea prop Stuart Evans. Mrs Justice Ebsworth ruled that the WRU hearing gave the player no rights.

I saw the incident in which these former Welsh internationals and former rugby league bruisers flayed at each like a couple of portly windmills. When the ref rightly sent them off, they put an arm around each other's shoulder and left the field like a couple coming off the dance floor at the local Darby and Joan club.

There are many violent and unpleasant episodes in rugby that need firm handling and that wasn't one of them. Her Honour is not threatening rugby's disciplinarians, she is just trying to save them from their own pomposity.

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