By Paul Gardner
The latest U-turn performed by Sepp Blatter on the matter of goal line technology will surprise no one. Blatter has been leaning this way and that for years now, saying no, maybe, no again, yes, but ... and so on.
Two highly visible refereeing screw-ups in South Africa have put Blatter on the defensive and brought about his latest re-think. England and Mexico are out of the World Cup, feeling justifiably aggrieved that their exit was assisted by poor refereeing calls.
Maybe so, maybe not. But the idea should surely be to eliminate, or at least minimize, such incidents.
So maybe we’ll get technological help for the referees sometime in the near future. But not right now, not in this tournament.
But introducing replays is something that FIFA could indeed do right now -- something that would avoid the possibility of yet another embarrassing gaffe.
Think about this. You are the goalkeeper. You are facing an opponent in a penalty kick shootout. This could be the last kick of the game. If he scores, it’s over, you lose, your team is out of the World Cup. But if you can pull off a save, your team is still alive. The stakes could hardly be higher.
This was the extraordinarily tense situation in which the Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima found himself yesterday. What to do? Kawashima did what I feel almost all goalkeepers would do. He cheated. He stepped forward from his line before Paraguay’s Oscar Cardozo had taken his kick. A clear infringement. But Cardozo scored anyway, so the cheating went unnoticed.
But the same situation had arisen earlier on Yuichi Komano’s kick. He hit the bar, and that was the mis-kick that decided the game. Yet it is clear on the replays that Paraguayan goalkeeper Justo Villar had advanced forward before Komano took his fatal kick. The kick should have been retaken.
Neither of these offenses was called. You have to wonder why, because one of the referee’s assistants is standing on the goal line, within 10 yards of the goalkeeper, with nothing to do but watch for goalkeeper movement. Yet in neither case did this official raise his flag.
In short, if Kawashima had made a save, it would have been allowed and Japan would have been reprieved, for at least one more kick. Actually, this was not Kawashima’s only offense -- he had stepped forward before both Cristian Riveros and Nelson Valdez made their kicks. The assistant referee should have flagged for those offenses.
Obviously, as all the Paraguay players scored, there is no question of the kicks having to be retaken. But the goalkeeper offenses should have been flagged, allowing for a retake should the Paraguayans have failed to score.
OK, it is difficult to spot the exact timing of that first step forward by the goalkeeper. Which makes this an ideal situation for consulting replays. No special cameras or equipment is necessary. All the fourth official has to do is look at the television. This is also not a “real time” situation, an important consideration, for Blatter in the past has used that argument to condemn replays. As soon as the shootout kicker scores or fails, the action is over.
There follows a non-action pause before the next kick -- a pause offering bags of time for an assessment of the previous kick and for instructions, if necessary, for a retake to be conveyed to the referee.
The shootout is a highly unsatisfactory method of deciding games anyway. If the referees and their assistants entrusted to making it work fail to do so, it becomes an ever bigger farce. One wonders what sort of instructions they may have been given about these situations.
Certainly some advice must have been given, because getting the shootout scores wrong is every bit as damaging as failing to get over-the-line calls correct. Maybe more so, given that shootouts always directly affect the outcome of a game. It is even possible, I suppose, that the officials are told not to flag until after a goal has either been scored or saved. This would be highly risky, involving an implication that the official can tailor his call according to what has already happened.
What I have described above indicates that we are in danger of getting another scandalous miscall. This time there is no excuse. FIFA, right at this moment, is sensitive, probably hypersensitive, to the issue.
I can think of no reason -- other than sheer obduracy -- for not using replays in this situation. I’d go as far as to say that the shootout, synthetic contraption that it is, seems almost designed to accommodate replays.
But sheer stubbornness is not easy to shift. It has been noticeable that Blatter’s denials of technology have been making less and less sense. Just six months ago, Blatter, in effect, tried to silence everyone who wanted to discuss the matter with an absurd appeal to the press: “Please do not insist on this theme.”
Whatever happened, it seemed Blatter and FIFA would not listen. Said FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke: “The door is closed.” This had the sound of desperation. At a time when the world was getting used to the greatest free flow of information in its history, FIFA decided to buck the trend. Except that it isn’t a trend, it’s a fact.
The facts have evidently caught up with Blatter. Shamed by yet another wrong over-the-line call, Blatter now talks of “reopening the file” on technology.
But all of that refers to over-the-line incidents during “real-time.” The shootout, not part of the “real time” of a game, presents a different situation. One that FIFA could so easily embrace to avoid the looming possibility that another country will exit the World Cup feeling -- or knowing -- that it has been screwed.