Instant replay: Let’s see that again, FIFA

By Sean Ahmed

Soccer’s video replay debate has existed since the technology was successfully implemented in other professional sports. There has been discord between those who see the technology as a threat to the game’s continuity and those who believe the modern game has increased in pace so significantly that it is now an impossible task for officials to do all that is asked of them. Recent events at Old Trafford, however, have suggested that there is no better time than now to apply the use of video technology to professional soccer.

For those that do not know, a quick recap: A tight game between Manchester United and Tottenham was fast heading toward a 0-0 draw. In injury time, Pedro Mendes tried his luck with a speculative 50-yard effort. A retreating Roy Carroll managed to get under the lofty shot, but proceeded to fumble it over the goal line. The Irishman scrambled to get the ball out of the goal, and it wasn’t in vain: The referees, presumably not having seen the incident, denied the visitors the goal and waved play on. Minutes later, the match ended goalless amidst wild protests from the Tottenham players and a distinct look of guilt on the shamed United goalkeeper’s face.

Many regard this mistake as a disgrace to the game and as a testimony to the low quality of officiating in Europe’s top leagues. However, it is nothing more than one event in a string of many that reinforces the necessity of video replay in professional soccer.

Despite the numerous instances of incompetent officiating over the last year, the referees were blameless on this occasion. Both were positioned correctly, and it was merely chance that their distance from the goal prevented them from making a judgment on such a long-range effort. Giving the defending team the benefit of the doubt was the correct decision.

Thus, the problem lies in the fact that situations of this sort are to be expected. Goal-line controversies have existed for years, and now that technology that can remedy the situation is readily available, it is absurd not to implement it.

More controversially, to what extent should soccer use video replay? Many desire a system similar to the NFL in which a team is granted a certain number of challenges over disputable calls. Others prefer that the video review take place solely when initiated by the fourth official.

Crucially, all these solutions interrupt the game as the video is reviewed. Unlike many American sports, the continuous flow of the game is paramount in soccer. Further, it would be necessary to consider which calls would be reviewable: Offsides? Penalties? Fouls? In which parts of the field?

The only seemingly feasible method is the implementation of a video replay system based on the officials’ objective decisions. In soccer, this is limited to balls crossing the goal line and offsides. Since the referee already wears an earpiece, putting a sensor in the ball and using it to judge when the ball crosses the line seems straightforward.

If this were so easy, however, why hasn’t it been done? FIFA has continually denied the implementation of goal line technology and, perhaps, rightfully so—affected games are few and far between. However, in big games it is inexcusable. More controversial is the way to remedy poor offsides calls.

Rather than increasing the number of referees, the solution is actually to have fewer on-field officials. Move the linesmen into a booth in which they have access to a touchline camera. The on-field and ball sensors would take care of such things as throw-ins, goal kicks, and balls crossing the goal line. The linesmen could instead focus entirely on correctly calling offsides. By using a camera with instant access to video replay, linesmen could make correct decisions in a matter of seconds. Though there would be a slight delay, it would be nothing like the official himself reviewing the play in a booth with only a slight delay.

It is time for soccer to make the move to video replay technology. FIFA should use the technology for obvious situations (such as the goal line), but also for offsides, where the game is plagued by human error—too many games are won or lost on the back of incorrect offsides decisions. However FIFA must also be prudent and protect the game’s fluency—the ultimate source of its popularity.