No appeal in Blatter’s latest idea

blatter cc the sport review

TV replays could be used to challenge a ref's decision as soon as next year’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup, says Sepp Blatter. But is it the right move for football? Reading fan and FSF Secretary Jon Keen thinks not…

Although not completely unexpected, Blatter’s idea is terrible news, and I think rates in the top three of ludicrous ideas coming from FIFA’s President, slightly behind his 2004 idea of ensuring that women players wear “tighter shorts”.

Introducing such a system will be the start of a plummet down the slippery slope to a substantially different game. People might say that this is just a natural continuation of the process which started with the use of goal-line technology, but it’s really not, for there are a couple of massive differences between goal-line technology and TV replays.

Firstly, there’s a world of difference between line decisions and the many other crucial differences for which we rely on referees. A ball has either crossed the line or it hasn’t – that’s a nice straightforward and factual decision, and for an objective decision like that that technology can be used to inform a referee. There’s nothing subjective about it, and the referee doesn’t need to use any skill or even think very much about the matter – it was a goal, or it wasn’t.

Decisions on fouls and handballs, though, are quite a different matter. This is where a referee really uses their skill, judgment and experience, because there are a whole host of subjective factors to take into account before making a decision– not least judging intent.

Did the ball hit the hand or the hand hit the ball? Was a tackle mistimed, negligent, a deliberate foul? These are the things to be considered by a referee, and these are precisely the things that can’t be decided by watching TV replays – no-one is as well placed as a referee, on the pitch an close to the action, to adjudicate on such matters.

How often have you seen panels of pundits arguing over replays and unable to reach agreement over what the decision should have been? I’m sure that even panels consisting of qualified and experienced referees won’t be able to reach a unanimous or correct decision just from looking at TV replays – they just don’t have the same viewpoint and context that the man in the middle does. So all we’d actually be ending up with from a replay panel would be a decision reached by more people, but not necessarily a correct one.

The other big difference is the introduction of delays. Lest anyone think I'm a luddite who opposes anything new, I was always enthusiastically in favour of the introduction of goal-line technology, but with one important proviso – that any notification was virtually instantaneous. I was delighted that, on this at least, FIFA saw sense and made this a crucial prerequisite of the systems they looked at.

One of the eternal delights of football is that every game is a continuously evolving narrative, where what happens now depends upon what’s gone on before. It’s not like cricket or tennis, where there is an individual passage of play with a ball bowled or a single rally, and then play has a natural break – the ball can be in play for many minutes at a time. Whichever approach you might adopt – stopping the game when an appeal is made or only allowing appeals when play is next stopped anyway – they both have major downsides.

If you allow the game to be stopped, I’m sure it won’t be long before a manager decides that the best time to lodge an appeal is when the opposition striker is bearing down on goal with only the keeper to beat – so instead of a valid appeal you’ve handed them a get out of jail free card.

Alternatively, if you wait until the game is stopped, that brings just as much potential madness, because you wind the game back in time. Let’s take a scenario – a team is defending, and their winger dives on an opposition striker on the edge of the area. The referee sees nothing wrong with the challenge, and play continues – possibly for many minutes.

Now, anything could happen before the ball next goes out of play – that winger might score a goal as memorable as Ryan Giggs’ famous FA Cup semi-final goal, he might commit a foul worthy of a red card, or he might suffer an injury and be unable to continue – literally anything could happen.

But a successful TV appeal against that initial tackle would wipe out whatever had happened in that time – the goal of the century might be suddenly deemed to have never happened, the winger might get a retrospective red card to go with his second, or he might reflect as he is carried off by stretcher that his injury was all for nothing as it happened in a part of the game which never officially took place.

Clearly a ludicrous situation, and that’s before you even wonder what happens about timekeeping - if it’s five minutes since the “offence” occurred, do you wind the clock back for that five minutes and play them again, or do you just simply pretend they never happened and wipe them off the slate?

Whichever option you select, what you’ll have at the end of it is a wholly changed game to the one we know and love. Perhaps we should be asking just who is clamouring for these changes? The loudest voices are those of pundits, especially TV broadcasters.

For them, of course, this would be a godsend – a perfect opportunity to insert a few valuable adverts without having to wait through the whole inconvenient 45 minutes of each half. No wonder they’re such enthusiastic supporters of this idea, and would no doubt be more than happy to see more and more stoppages for appeals allowed within play.

I’m afraid that once you allow the game to be stopped, where does this process end? There’s no doubt in my mind that the broadcasters' nirvana would be something akin to NFL, so lucrative because of the officially permitted 20 ad-breaks per game, including “television timeouts”. That’s the ultimate destination once you start in the direction of travel allowing stoppages in the middle of the play.

A good rule of thumb is what is good for a TV broadcaster usually isn’t good for the game itself or for its supporters, and I’m sure that rule applies here. So let’s just leave the game as it is, please, and be happy with the long-established principle that although a referee might not always be right, there’s no bias and any errors are part of the game.

Changing this to a situation where referees are no longer right but can be overruled by a panel of “experts”, where the game can suddenly be stopped or wound back, would give us a game different in so many ways. A game I’m sure would have no appeal outside the world of TV advertising.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to The Sport Review for the image reproduced under CC license.