15 April 2012

Dive talkin'

One of the main operating principles of this blog is that in no way should it offer advice or opinions that could in any way be construed as useful. But I'm about to break that rule, mainly because I have had an idea that is too long to tweet or put on Facebook, so bear with me if you are not comfortable with this phenomenon, or if you have no interest in Association Football. For I have solved one of the most vexing problems of this sport: how to resolve poor decisions by referees who award penalties where none was due, or who fail to award one where an obvious infringement has taken place.

A bit of context for the footballing ingenue: Despite running a multi-billion dollar sporting franchise, none of the governing bodies of Association Football allow the use of video technology to help officials make decisions during live play. To the outsider this must seem like running a long jump competition without using a tape measure, but for the gnomes of Zurich, where FIFA is splendidly headquartered, this is something of a badge of honour. From the point-of-view of such a venal, bloated, corrupt, blinkered, reactionary collection of self-serving, vainglorious tosspots, it is entirely understandable that any questioning of officialdom should be stamped on with zealous enthusiasm. For the mere hint of questioning the fallibility of a referee is the thin end of a long wedge that ends with the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to a country so ill-suited to its hosting, the only possible explanation for the outcome is malfeasance.

But grown-up sports such as cricket, rugby (both codes), tennis, athletics and even horse racing have all realised that arriving at the right decision is better than not hurting the feelings of put-upon referees. Without exception each of these sports has improved as a result of the introduction of technology, when seen from a utilitarian overview of the totality of decisions made. That this is self-evidently so in practice only increases the pressure upon Association Football authorities to surrender to the obvious every time a poor decision is made. Every week, in other words.

The anti-technologists, who somehow feel poor decision-making adds to the richness of a sport, make two key objections to the use of video during play: it disrupts the flow of the match and it undermines the authority of the referee. So let's look at these objections, before setting out my solution:

1) It disrupts the flow of a match. Anyone who has ever watched a live match in any of the top European leagues knows a professional football game flows like a frozen lake. The ball is actually in open play for around two-thirds of a match. In other words, 33% of every game played is spent NOT playing football. I think we can cope with the odd break before we wander off like attention-deficient children who've spotted a new toy.

2) It undermines the authority of referees.Again, anyone who has watched more than, say, two professional football matches will- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, hoo-hoo, hee hee, heh-heh *is carried out helpless with mirth on a stretcher*. No, really, what did you say? The Authority of...? Oh, dear me, that really is a good one. No, really, what was your SERIOUS objection?

My suggestion is simple: Football should follow the example of the DRS system used in cricket. Each team would have one appeal per match for an incident that happens inside the penalty area. If a penalty is awarded, the defending team may appeal to an off-pitch referee with access to all TV camera angles, or, similarly, an attacking team who feels a foul was committed can appeal through the same process, if the on-field referee denies them a penalty. The off-field ref must be satisfied the video evidence is strong enough to overturn the on-field referee's original decision. If the appeal is upheld, the decision is overturned and the appealing team retains its appeal for future use in the match. If the on-field referee's decision is upheld, the appealing team has no further appeals to use in the game, and must abide by all the on-field decisions. If a penalty is overruled, the diving attacking player incurs an automatic yellow card.

This is restricted to incidents in the penalty area. The captain is the designated decision maker about whether to appeal and he has 15 seconds from the ball going out of play to lodge an appeal with the referee. It supports the primacy of the on-field referee, but allows teams to overrule the obvious howler. It would also give the lie to those wise-after-the-event players to put up or shut up during the game. It might even, as a result, give a hitherto unknown respect for referees by the players, who realise it isn't easy making decisions on the hoof. By involving players in the decision-making process, it would probably also encourage a sense of self-policing, engendering a greater professional responsibility among a group not known for such a thing.

I realise there is a significant downside to this proposal: if poor decision-making were eliminated from football penalty areas, what on earth would football fans talk about for hours? Entire radio phone-in programmes would become barren empty wastelands. TalkSport FM would cease to exist as a going concern. The entire fabric of the football-watching world would be torn to shreds. Perhaps Sepp Blatter and his cronies have a point after all.