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Three Changes Soccer Needs
by Paul Gardner, September 22nd, 2008 7AM


LONDON -- Here are three things that I have been banging on about for decades now, three straightforward things that could quickly and easily be introduced into soccer. By a freakish coincidence, examples of all three have featured prominently during the past week.

These are not rule changes -- they would have no, or only incidental, effect on the way the game is played. What they have in common is communications. They are all ways of trying to make certain that everyone involved in a soccer game -- from the referees to the players and coaches to the journalists and commentators to the fans -- knows what is going on, and knows it as quickly as possible.

That is not asking too much in this astonishing age of instant communication. In fact, the only astonishing thing is that there should be any question at all. The need for the question exposes the way in which soccer is simply not keeping up with the times.

SIGNALS: The transmission of information to and from referees on the field of play is pitifully poor in soccer. Over 30 years ago, I wrote a column suggesting that a universally-accepted code of referee signals was needed. Of course, nothing has happened. So, in the English Premier League -- the world's richest pro league -- we get this:

Chelsea's John Terry -- the England captain was red-carded by referee Mark Halsey. What for? Well, Terry had football-tackled Manchester City forward Jo near the halfway line to prevent him from breaking clear. In the absence of any signal from Halsey, it was widely assumed that the red-card was for denying an obvious scoring opportunity.

Much heated debate immediately followed in the panels of former players on television, in the media, and no doubt in the pubs. I watched detailed replays of the incident including freeze-frames "proving" that center back Ricardo Carvalho was covering Terry, and would surely have cut off Jo's route to goal. So, many argued, there was no "obvious" scoring opportunity. Anyway, Jo was some 40 yards away from the Chelsea, which also made "obvious" look a bit ridiculous.

However it soon became known that Halsey's call had nothing to do with scoring opportunities. He had red-carded Terry for "serious foul play." Which meant that all the heat and energy and clever pontificating by the experts had been a total waste of time.

A signals code would do away with such farcical incidents. At the time of his red card, Halsey would have given an accepted signal for serious foul play, and there would be no doubts -- and no prolonged, utterly erroneous speculations or criticisms of Halsey.

NUMBERS: Numbers on the shirt-fronts, I mean. FIFA insists on them for international games. Why do clubs not do the same? They mutter about conflict with sponsors' and manufacturers' logos, but this is a weak argument. Last Wednesday an Italian referee, officiating the Glasgow Celtic vs. Aalborg of Denmark, red-carded the wrong player. Mistaken identity, it seems, embarrassment all around. Now, this was probably not a case where frontal numbers would have helped, but there are plenty of instances where the front number -- leading to quick identification of a player -- can be of enormous help to a referee, not to mention TV commentators, journalists and spectators. There was an odd footnote to this: two weeks earlier, West Ham United's sponsor -- XL airlines -- had filed for bankruptcy, and the West Ham players took the field with blank patches sewn over the XL logo on the shirt fronts. This past week, the patches were no longer blank -- they bore the players number.

TECHNOLOGY: My position on technology has been the same for years now -- use it for disputed goalscoring, but be very wary of any further application. Plus one crucial rider: there is absolutely no need for hi-tech solutions. Ordinary television cameras will do for 99 percent of the disputed calls. Hi-tech stuff has not been proved to be infallible -- but it is mighty expensive. It's not necessary.

Saturday showed why. In the Reading vs. Watford game, Reading was awarded a goal -- when the ball did not enter the goal. No hi-tech wizardry was necessary for this one. The referee's assistant flagged to indicate that the ball had crossed the goal line, Possibly it had. The problem was that the ball was not between the goal posts but a good two yards outside the right post.

Ridiculous. Again, communication comes into this one. As the game had already been stopped -- by the awarding of the phantom goal, there was plenty of time for someone -- surely the fourth official? -- to butt in and point out what was obvious to almost everyone except the referee and his assistant.

After the game, Reading coach Steve Coppell - whose team had profited from screwup, said "The game is crying out for video evidence." Actually, for this one, the only technology needed was two eyes connected to a brain.

  1. Charles Holmes
    commented on: September 22, 2008 at 11:52 a.m.
    Dear Paul, Since it seems that all the referees in the big leagues [but not MLS] and international tournaments are miked. Couldn't the 4th official be given the added responsibility of passing on the info about cards to the team's technical directors and perhaps a media representative on the sideline in near real time. That might go a long way towards your 1st and 3rd points.

  1. Frank Cebul
    commented on: September 25, 2008 at 11:56 p.m.
    Paul--I agree with all of your points. As a high school referee I am required by my state soccer association to give signals to indicate the fouls that I am calling. It sure helps for me to know what my fellow referee has just called from the other side of the field when a coach asks what foul was called. Also, having numbers on the front and back of the jerseys would sure make my job easier. In an emotion-charged situation in which a card needs to be issued, I have several much more important things to watch for and attend to than to make my way to the rear of the offending player in order to be able to see his number. Anything that improves communication will improve the game. How can anyone argue against this without displaying disrespect for the game?

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