TCS Daily

Eye of God vs. Hand of God

By Michael Standaert - June 28, 2002 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- Instant replay in World Cup football? "Never!" The traditionalists proclaim. The arguments against instant replay usually point out that it would slow the play too much, take too much influence away from the referees on the field, or taint the traditional spectrum of the game. But "emotion"?

Last Thursday, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a former Swiss watchmaker, disregarded the prospect of using instant replay in World Cup matches, saying that it would rule out a crucial factor involved in the games: emotion.

"We will make sure that no technical help will be used in refereeing," Blatter said. "We shall only rely on human beings to make the decisions. There is also another crucial part of the game that would be lost, and that is the emotion involved." I wonder what Blatter will think when the 'emotional' human football fans angry at a bad call riot, trash, or generally make mayhem in the streets of Geneva after the next crucial match is botched. Not that Switzerland is a powerhouse of world football, and not that football hooligans need an excuse to crack bottles over each other's heads, but you get the point.

Blatter did come up with some decent options for improving World Cup officiating, mainly revolving around the idea of better training and teaching of referees. After a 2002 Cup that was tainted by poor calls that may have decided the fates of Spain, Italy and others, he had to make an effort to appear to be doing something about the perceived poor officiating. Currently, only one official from each country can be a referee in World Cup matches, and no official can officiate a game in which his country participates. Blatter has called for better training, better co-ordination, and better screening of referees sent by the various countries.

American football commentator JP Dellacamera as well as other analysts have a more elitist approach - using only officials from what they deem to be the best leagues in the world. This would undoubtedly give Europe and the Championship League players the advantage of playing with officials they regularly see.

"For the money and prestige at stake at a World Cup, if we determine that the best referees in the world come from only six countries, then that's where we should go to get them," Dellacamera writes at Major League Soccer. "We could still make sure that no referee would be in a position to call a game which featured his own country."

This approach may seem fine. If the world's best players go to the World Cup, why not the referees? The problem with this is that players compete to get to the World Cup - referees are chosen. Who is to say who the best officials are? As we saw from this year's Cup, even those teams considered the best may not be the best when the tournament actually occurs. South Korea, Turkey, Senegal and even the USA were not pegged to get as far as they did. Portugal, France, Italy and Spain packed off for Club Med long before most thought they would.

Another issue often raised is that officials in regular leagues usually work together with the same crews where they become familiar with each other and how they work individually as well as a team. Officials work together as a team just as much as the players do. But when the World Cup rolls around, referees are thrown together with referees they may have never met before. Many can hardly communicate with each other because of language conflicts. Addressing the 'team' factor of officiating, possibly by creating 'teams' of officials working together to cover World Cup qualifying matches prior to the actual World Cup finals, and introducing them to the use of instant replay would help to clear up the mess that has resulted from politically correct country selection.

The use of instant replay began in 1966 for ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' as a media technique for replaying short sections of film to highlight spectacular, controversial or crucial plays. It wasn't until much later that it was tested in a complimentary fashion for refereeing games in the National Football League (US) in 1996, and officially implemented as part of the regular officiating in 1999 and then, only with the 'challenge system.' There are also discussions underway in the National Basketball Association about using instant replay for crucial points.

As a prime example of what could be used for the World Cup, the NFL challenge system allows opposing coaches to dispute a call by one of the officials, only on certain crucial calls, and only twice per game. The challenge then goes to the instant replay official that reviews the play and issues a decision. If the challenge is unsuccessful, the coach loses a time-out.

Adapting instant replay to World Cup football is a little tricky because of the continuity of play involved. But if there are a limited number of challenges that a coach could make, this wouldn't take too much time away from the match and any time taken could be added on as extra time, which usually amounts to two or three minutes anyway. If there is further limitation on what calls could be challenged or disputed, such as only allowing disputed shots on goal or calls in the penalty area to be ruled against, there would be little disruption. Referees would still have great control over most of the game, and would be allowed to do their work in a normal fashion. Instant replay does not take over for the referees. If used correctly, it compliments them, backs them up, and relieves them of pressures of trying to make the perfect call. They are only human, and the cameras are only cameras. A lot of the first and a little of the second could help smooth out what has been a turbulent year for accusations of poor officiating at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

Whether it is the complaints by Spain and Italy for the various calls that went against them, or the 'Hand of God' play where the US team lost a goal when the ball hit the hand of a player in front of the goal line in its loss last week to Germany, World Cup officiating is in need of changes, and instant replay is the safest, least political, and sanest answer. If implemented with the correct rules for its uses, instant replay would make a fine fit for the 2006 cup, but only if players and officials become used to it, which means implementing it now for all qualifying matches, and training referees to use it.



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