“Play it again, Ref?”

How football will benefit from video replays

Twitter: @jakeybaylisss

Last Sunday saw the latest incident to pose the question: does football need video referees? A distraught Gary Cahill could be seen on Match of the Day 2 visibly upset by Andre Marriner’s decision at Swansea that had cost his side two points. Two points that, as Cahill rightly pointed out, could prove to be crucial at the end of the season.

Though emotions were running high Cahill stressed that he had a lot of respect for Marriner and acknowledged that the officials do not get the benefit of replays (even if he did insist you could see the foul from the moon!). However, despite his candid post-match interview, there is still no way for Chelsea to reclaim those lost points[1].

A week after being elected FIFA President in March, Gianni Infantino made clear his ambition to have video referees rolled out across football by 2017 and insisted that he also wanted it to be used during the 2018 World Cup.

Last month saw video replays used for the first time, during a match between NY Red Bulls II and Orlando City B in the United States’ third tier. It proved effective, with 2 red cards being given as a direct result of the Video Assistant Referee programme.

During the game the referee would signal that he wished to view an incident again, and ran over to the sideline to do so. Between the foul being committed and the final decision being made there was a 90 second stoppage on both occasions. The flow of the game was not hindered, one of the issues Infantino was keen to avoid[2].

The concept of video replays is readily accepted by players, managers and fans alike but has struck a nerve with certain referees, with some not seeing it as an aid, rather an attempt of marginalisation or a slight on their own abilities.

Indeed, even this country’s most acclaimed referee, Howard Webb, has warned against the overuse of video replays. Even prior to their use in league football, Webb has said he feels that if replays were to be used for every decision then match officials would become little more than “remote-controlled refs”[3].

These fears of referees gradually becoming more insignificant are not new and are not necessarily misplaced either. Retrospective action, for example, was initially brought into football for incidents that happened off the ball. However, this is no longer the case.

In fact, this was at the heart of a major allegation made by former Premier League referee Mark Halsey, who claimed he had been told to say that he had not seen an incident as so to allow retrospective action to be taken.

True or not, it does show how retrospective action has progressed from off the ball incidents into the middle of the action. Alongside retrospective action, the sport now has goal-line technology too; so shouldn’t referees be grateful that their jobs are getting easier?

Football referees have been maligned figures for over 150 years. Their decisions are almost always met with a level of disdain from either side, sometimes universally. Post-match their decisions come under further scrutiny. In the modern era, a camera zoomed in on an incident to an almost microscopic scale manages to show a clash of knees; Alan Shearer looks disgusted by the referee’s obvious ineptitude – “It was a clear penalty!”

Instant replays have been used within other sports for decades, but in the face of modernity football has often sought to celebrate its flaws. Even in recent years, when video replays were introduced into tennis 10 years ago, football stood firm. Similarly in 2009, when cricket incorporated Hawk-Eye into the sport, football seemed to glorify the element of human error within the game. But that time may just be coming to an end.

Some referees may begrudge their shrinking influence on the game, after all they no doubt believe that they are capable of officiating successfully without the help of technology. But they may still be proved right.

What the technology will provide, however, is the certainty that a key decision made during the game was the right one – or at least an informed one on the referee’s part. Retrospective action alluded to this shift in attitude; whilst fans and pundits still clamour for a referee to state publicly why they made specific decisions.

The technology would remove all of this doubt from the game and allow referees to regain full control of the situation, the very opposite of what Howard Webb believes would happen.

This is not to say that there would no longer be debates post-match, of course. Every week, even with the benefit of multiple camera angles, fans, journalists and pundits still all struggle to come to the same conclusions. But we would at least know that the official was fully-informed when making a decision that changed the course of a match.

The last international break saw what Infantino described as “football history”. A friendly between France and Italy became the first international match to use instant replays. The watershed moment came after claims of handball were made against France. A momentary pause allowed the referee to have a second look and he decided not to award a penalty. Problem solved[4].

Infantino’s approach has been a refreshing one after Sepp Blatter’s long out-dated, stubborn stance. Thierry Henry’s handball against the Republic of Ireland, Frank Lampard’s phantom goal against Germany and even Leroy Fer’s foul on Cahill last weekend could, and perhaps should, have been dealt with effectively by video technology had anybody else been in charge of football for the last decade.

With football becoming richer year on year, refereeing mistakes are proving to be more and more costly. Premier League chairmen, in particular, will be hoping that the current FIFA President can stick to his word, if only to save themselves a few quid. The referees, meanwhile, should be relieved that somebody finally seems to be on their side for a change – and if Infantino’s plans play out smoothly, the fans may start to be too.

[1] Match of the Day 2, First broadcast on BBC One, 11th September 2016 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07w5qxy/match-of-the-day-2-201617-11092016)

[2] ‘Video referees in football ‘no later’ than 2017-18 – IFAB’, BBC Sport Online, 5th March 2016, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/35736241)

[3] ‘Video replays could lead to ‘remote-controlled referees’ – Howard Webb’, ESPNFC UK Online, 5th September 2016, (http://www.espnfc.co.uk/english-premier-league/story/2943940/video-replays-could-lead-to-remote-controlled-referees-howard-webb)

[4] ‘Video replays used for first time during France’s 3-1 win over Italy’, BBC Sport Online, 2nd September 2016, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/37253102)

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