In a contest more than 90 minutes long, there’s no telling which roll of the ball, which sequence of passes, which won challenge will lead to a goal.
Every match is a green canvas where 22 men often collide at full sprint, where studs and shins clatter like maces and swords on an ancient battleground.
At the center of these frequent clashes is a sole referee responsible for quickly interpreting and enforcing the laws of a subjective game.
It’s not difficult to concede that in an era where the players are bigger, the speed of the game faster than ever before that some things will be missed.
Deflections, which make a corner a goal kick, are occasionally imperceptible to the human eye, the step a forward has behind the last defender may be obscured to the linesman who keeps his flag down.
When, however, a grievous foul is overlooked, or an outcome hinges on flawed decisions, in this era of TV and technology when the stakes are so high, that's inexcusable.
The obviousness of the need to introduce some manner of a video review in soccer was apparent long before Mario Balotelli tried to stamp the name of his boot manufacturer into the side of Scott Parker’s face during their Premier League clash this past Sunday.
Balotelli was rightly handed a four-match ban from the FA for his violent conduct. The problem is this came 24 hours after the match was over, a 3-2 victory for league leaders Manchester City over No. 3 Tottenham.
Twenty-four hours after Balotelli scored the decisive goal from the penalty spot in extra time.
While there’s no telling what might have happened had the controversy-courting Italian not been on the pitch, the plain fact is that his crime went unpunished.
Real Madrid’s Pepe should have met a similar fate after a similar incident in the Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Barcelona last week.
That the Spanish federation abstained from fettering out a suspension to the Portuguese midfielder is mind-boggling.
A longtime in coming, these two incidents should prompt officials to install some manner of video review that would ensure flagrant offences such as these are dealt with accordingly during, not after, the run of play.
Lack of Leadership
The likelihood that replay review reform occurs any time soon is, however, frustratingly slim.
UEFA President Michel Platini has repeatedly expressed his objection to the use of video replay in European matches.
As far back as 2007, Platini said he was “totally opposed” to video replays, and that it would “destroy football.” FIFA President Sepp Blatter has shown little commitment to the issue as well.
When he mentioned it would be “nonsense” not to consider changes in the summer of 2010, it was only lip service to the heap of media pressure after two glaring refereeing mistakes in one day at South Africa’s World Cup.
Blatter’s response to England’s unrecognized equalizing goal and Argentina’s illegal one was an empty apology and a further restriction on what replays are shown on stadium big screens.
Only recently has the International Football Association Board (IFAB), FIFA’s rules-making body, acknowledged and begun to explore using goal line technology in sanctioned tournaments, though it's still some time from being fully realized.
There's no shortage of ideas on how to work video replays cohesively into soccer matches. Major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and Rugby Union have effectively used replay to assist referees during the course of play.
If, for example, only flagrant, grievous and unsportsmanlike fouls were subject to review, this would be a crucial step.
Stomping, intentional elbows or kicks would be as obvious to officials watching a replay as they are to the thousands in stadiums, or millions watching on television.
Penalties awarded on the false pretense of theatrics, or the appearance of a handball, should also come under review.
Within the natural flow of the game, these decisions and the appropriate disciplinary actions can take place.
It's a fine line between assisting referees and undermining them. But while the technology exists to accomplish this, the leadership does not.
Blatter and Platini are the voice of a stoic group of traditionalists who exploit the sentiment of simplicity and the “human element” in order to retard progress and improvements.
Blatter is keen to point out that soccer fans love to debate the subjective elements of a game, that it is, in fact, fundamental to the game.
I wouldn’t deny that soccer fans love a good debate, but I would counter that they prefer a just result over all else.
Cause and Effect
This past Nov. 19, Babak Rafati was scheduled to referee the Bundesliga match between Cologne and Mainz.
He didn’t show for a pregame meeting with the other match officials, which ultimately led to them barging into his hotel room mere hours before the match.
They found the 41-year-old in a bathtub full of blood, moments from successfully finalizing his suicide attempt. He was rushed to the hospital and has recovered from the physical injuries.
The mental trauma is a different story altogether. Doctors diagnosed Rafati with serious depression caused by the immense pressure he felt in doing his job.
Rafati described the “constant fear of making mistakes,” which led to a “burden that made daily routine problems insurmountable” and the feeling he could “no longer cope.”
Referees have come under physical attack from Argentina to Zambia. The pressure involved with manning a top European match or World Cup fixture is as burdensome to the refs as it is to the players.
Referee blunders—made all the more apparent on the biggest stages, disseminated widely and rapidly in the age of the viral video—taint reputations and damage psyches.
Another side effect of these missed calls is vigilante justice meted out by the players themselves.
Should a deliberate, malicious act go unpunished by the referees, then players look to sort it out on their own.
It’s part of soccer’s—and many sports—unwritten code to settle these scores.
Balotelli or Pepe might be targeted to settle up on their debts regardless of a referees intervention, but the more that brand of justice occurs outside of laws of the game, the more we erode sportsmanship and the notions of fair play FIFA is so eager to promote.
Among other things, Blatter contends that technological advancements would be too expensive to apply to every league or match under FIFA’s dominion, and that it would interrupt the flow of a game with few natural stoppages.
The Hawkeye system used in tennis is only used on show courts and not at every tournament without great fuss.
Systems can be devised that respect the natural flow of the game.
Rendering every play a technical debate would be counter productive and detract from the enjoyability of playing and watching the sport.
Making referees full-time professionals has already gained significant traction, though universal standards remain elusive due to the disparity in resources across all the football playing nations in the world.
Re-examining the “diagonal system of control”, the foundation for officiating the game, might be a worthy cause.
A tackle here, an offsides there occur during every game and tend to find equilibrium come the final reckoning.
Legislative discretion should remain centered with the game referee, but resigning to their fallibility when decisions can effect title chases, relegations, promotions and Champions league placement?
When World Cup matches are compromised, when millions of dollars for clubs, federations and bettors is at play and when fan passion easily morphs into irrational violence, then it’s imperative soccer’s governing bodies adopt a different posture on video replays.