Mihir Bose: Football must embrace modern technology

Mihir Bose

I have never been able to understand why football’s administrators, who make such extravagant claims on behalf of the game, have not been able to come to terms with the modern world.

There are two aspects to this issue. The first is the assistance referees can be given either through technology or more officials to come to the right decision – so they would not fail to detect the Thierry Henry handball that helped France beat Ireland to make it to South Africa.

The other is to make sure the crowd in the stadium is kept informed of all aspects of the game and not left in the dark. At present when they get home and see the match again on television, they may come to the conclusion they have been to an entirely different game.

For me the classic example of this was another Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head butt in the 2006 World Cup Final against Italy in Berlin. As has now been well documented, Zidane used his head against Italian defender Marco Materazzi’s chest after Materazzi had deliberately angered Zidane by telling him he preferred his “whore of a sister” to his shirt.

On that day I was sitting in seats next to a section of the crowd which was passionately pro-French and in particular pro-Zidane. Interestingly not many of them were from France, but from other parts of the world illustrating Zidane’s appeal. This was Zidane’s final match and they had come to pay homage to the great player.

Like almost everyone in the stadium, apart from the media who had access to television replays, we were all very mystified by the head butting incident. We knew nothing about it as it was not shown on the giant screens inside the stadium.

This meant that, for us ordinary spectators, one moment the Italians were clearing a French attack, the next Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, was racing down to the linesman gesticulating furiously in the direction of Zidane. Soon the referee was showing the red card to Zidane.

Now you could say this was a good example of how football makes sure it comes to the right decision. The referee had missed the incident as it had taken place behind his back but, triggered by Buffon’s protests, he consulted his officials and was made aware of what had happened.

However like the referee the crowd were in the dark as to what Zidane had done. And unlike the referee no attempt was made to explain. The result was that as Zidane, by far the most popular player on the field, trooped off, the conclusion many in the crowd came to was that this was a dastardly Italian trick orchestrated by Buffon.

A man sitting next to me was so incensed he kept shouting, “Die Buffon die,” and for a time the mood grew very ugly. Fortunately there was no violence but when the Italians went to collect the cup they were booed, unprecedented in the history of a World Cup final.

Football administrators are, of course, hopelessly divided on the technology issue. A few years ago, prodded by the Premier League, the FA was keen to push FIFA towards using technology to help the referee. But a chip in the ball experiment in a FIFA under-17 tournament did not produce satisfactory results and it was abandoned.

Now much more store is being put on the Michel Platini idea of having an extra official behind each goal line. This could have detected the Henry handball and the experiment is going on at present in the Europa League.
However the mealy mouthed way technology or new gadgets are used has meant in some ways football has increased its problems.

In 2006 despite being assisted by his officials Graham Poll somehow managed to rewrite the rules so, if only for a moment, three instead of two yellows [to Croatia’s Josip Simunuic] became the conversion standard for a red card.

Indeed, no less an authority than Franz Beckenbauer believes that, by being wired up to talk to their officials, modern referees are missing out on talking to the players. In his day this helped them make the right decisions. When the Henry handball was discussed at the FIFA Executive meeting in Robben Island just before the World Cup draw, Beckenbauer made the point that, in his playing days, the referee would have listened to the Irish players protests, then talked to Henry, and come to the right decision. Now it does not happen.

But, while I have some sympathy on the issue of how referees can be assisted to come to the right decision, whether it is through the use of technology or more officials, I have none for not keeping the crowd informed as to what really is happening.

The most common argument I hear is that football crowds are different to rugby or cricket crowds who have the patience and forbearance to wait for the officials to come to the right decision. It is believed that football crowds will be inflamed if they are shown contentious decisions on a screen such as a penalty appeal let alone a head butt. If football crowds are quite so immature then the game is in a bad way. Yes, some of them might react aggressively but most I believe are mature enough to try to follow the complexities of the game. What is more they have a right to do so. Otherwise they are being deprived of understanding and enjoying the game.

The damage this is doing cannot be overestimated. Even with the help of technology a referee could come to the wrong decision, events in cricket and rugby demonstrate that. It is in the very nature of sport that errors cannot be eliminated. However what these sports have understood is that every effort must be made to help the official to come to the right decision and the crowd has a right to know how a decision has been arrived at.

In football, failure to do so means that the viewers at home are seeing more of the game than those present in the stadium. This is creating such a huge gulf between the armchair viewer and those at the grounds that it could very reasonably be argued that it is bringing the entire game into disrepute.

Football authorities ignore this problem at their peril.

What is more on this issue they will find they are not in step with their players. As Michael Carrick, the Manchester United midfielder, recently told me he has no problems with aids to the referees be they technology or more officials as long as they do not stop the flow of the game. He accepts that the habit of a footballer to claim for a throw or a corner even when he knows he is not entitled to do so requires a huge cultural change.

That would be difficult but making sure a referee comes to the right decision would be a start as would ensuring that the decisions are made known and not hidden from the watching public.

Mihir Bose is one of the world’s most astute observers on politics in sport and, particularly, football. He formerly wrote for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and until recently was the BBC’s head sports editor. He will be writing a weekly column for insideworldfootball.