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07th Sep 2016

Thirst for technology in football has created as many problems as it has solved

Fear of making a mistake has put referees in no man's land - now they cannot win

Tony Barrett

“It’s all about fairness,” they said. A level playing field had to be created, one in which indiscretions are identified and punished without fear or favour so that inconsistencies would be eradicated.

Technology was the future; human beings with all their failings could no longer arbitrate alone. When controversy struck, referees would have to take a back seat to television. Cameras were the answer. The era of justice by replay had arrived.

And so here we are. Pandora’s Box has been opened and, for every problem that has been solved, a multitude more have been created.

Inconsistency? It’s still there. Sergio Aguero is banned for an elbowing offence but Marouane Fellaini, a serial offender, routinely avoids punishment.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United reacts after the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Manchester United FC and PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford on November 25, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

The human failings of referees? According to former official Mark Halsey, they now have to pretend to have missed incidents that they know they have seen in order for justice to be done.

The idea that cameras would make everything better was always fanciful. Football is the game that it is because so much that takes place is open to interpretation, regardless of how it happens to be viewed.

From the vantage point of a seat in a stand, you can watch the exact same incident as the person sat right next to you and see it a totally different way. When does a flailing arm become an elbow, an attempt to wrestle free of your marker become lashing out?

Often it is only those directly involved who can interpret their own actions. They know their own motivation and they know their intention.

The rest of us? We’re just onlookers trying our best to work out what we’ve just seen and why it has happened.

Some incidents, of course, are more clearcut than others. Ben Thatcher’s infamous elbow on Pedro Mendes in 2006 (below) was as blatant as it was despicable. So too was Leonardo’s equally sickening assault on Tab Ramos at the 2004 World Cup, even if Kevin Keegan initially claimed in commentary that the Brazilian hadn’t done “that much wrong.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: Pedro Mendes of Portsmouth receives treatment, after his collision with Ben Thatcher of Manchester City during the Barclays Premiership match between Manchester City and Portsmouth at the City of Manchester Stadium on August 23, 2006 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Football’s authorities have, quite rightly, attempted to take a zero tolerance to such incidents and that has increased the prevalence and importance of TV evidence.

But an inevitable by-product of such scrutiny and working in an environment in which countless cameras will pick up on anything you miss and any mistakes you might have made is that referees are increasingly caught in a no man’s land in which they are either afraid to make decisions or else make them out of fear of having missed something.

As the demands they face increase, so too does the pressure they are under. Squeezed by the old world and the new, referees are in an invidious position and it now feels as if they cannot win. In some respects they were never meant to, they are there to make sure matches are played within the laws of the game and nothing else, but the cost of their emasculation to the way football is played has not been insignificant.

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Referee Mike Dean is surrounded by Manchester City players after awarding a penalty during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Manchester City on August 20, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

We now have a farcical situation in which match officials are punishing perceived offences because a crackdown on penalty box grappling demands that no such misdemeanours go without sanction.

“I think in five years it’s going to be indoor football like basketball where you won’t be able to touch anyone,” Stoke City defender Erik Pieters said recently. “It’s getting more and more difficult to defend at set pieces or corners. Every player who falls or gets tripped or pretends to get tripped, there will always be a doubt now. The referee might give them a free-kick or a penalty. You’re not allowed to touch your opponent at all now. The way it’s going it won’t be long until you won’t be allowed to speak to them either.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Yannick Bolasie of Everton is challenged by Erik Pieters of Stoke City during the Premier League match between Everton and Stoke City at Goodison Park on August 27, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The idea that technology would aid the decision making process remains a noble one and the most serious offences should obviously be punished, but the current culture is not helpful to referees nor to players and we still have inconsistencies.

On top of that, reasonable contact and the very physicality that makes football such an engrossing sport is becoming increasingly endangered. Pandora’s Box cannot now be closed and in some ways that is right because on pitch assaults should always be punished whether it be at the time or retrospectively, but the pursuit of a level playing field that is still to be achieved has created as many problems as it has solved.

Retrospectively, there was a lot to be said for allowing referees to use their integrity to make decisions without fear of being shown up on television or feeling the need to reverse them at a later date. Not that those who claimed technology would be the panacea to all our ills would ever be prepared to admit that. 

The GAA Hour Hurling Show relives Tipperary’s sensational All-Ireland victory with Paidí Maher. Listen below or subscribe on iTunes.


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