On Monday, in this column, I ridiculed soccer’s attempt to make vital decisions based on supposedly accurate measurement of infinitesimally small distances. On Tuesday, a mere 20 hours later, my strictures were vindicated in the most emphatic way when Euro 2012 came up with an absolutely perfect illustration of the nonsense I was railing against.
This time it was the Ukraine, co-host of the tournament and playing against England, that got right royally screwed. In a brief “set-piece” (a favorite phrase among our TV brethren these days) -- it lasted all of two seconds -- Marko Devic’s shot spun up off the England goalkeeper Joe Hart and headed towards the empty net. Defender John Terry arrived to kick the ball “off the line” -- but the replays (never mind one’s own impression) make it clear that ball was already over the line.
But it wasn’t a goal.
What makes this particular incident the perfect example of just how fatuous these decisions can get is that it occurred under what are supposed to be the ideal circumstances for preventing such calamities.
The tournament is being played with two extra officials, the additional assistant referees (AARs), one positioned on each goal line. And the main reason why those extra officials are there, the very impetus for creating them in the first place, is to be in the perfect position to make instant decisions on whether the ball enters, or does not enter, the goal. They owe their existence to UEFA president Michel Platini who -- along with many others -- does not like the idea of using goal-line technology (GLT), and thinks that these AARs can do the job equally well. Well this one, a Hungarian, maybe the first ever AAR to be put in the spotlight with a chance to show just how helpful they can be, and he made a dreadful hash of things.
There he is, ideally positioned, just 10 yards away from the ball, staring intently at the action, straight down the goal line, yet he can’t see that the ball is over the line. But surely, he can see that a huge proportion of the ball is over the line -- he must be able to see that. So he’s telling us that while the ball might have been 99 percent over the line, he was able to judge, instantly, that 1 percent of the ball was overhanging the goal line. So, no goal.
This is just breath-taking silliness. The AAR’s failure would be much more forgivable if the replays and the stills were not so telling. The ball is over the line. One can only assume that this AAR has been completely taken in by all the nonsense that he will have grown up with, listening to that constant refrain of “all the ball must be over all the line.”
Maybe, after years of referee training encouraging you to believe that such a distinction can accurately be made in the heat and scramble of a game, maybe after all that, when you’re put in charge of making critical decisions with such an impossibly fine margin of error .. . . well, I’m quite willing to believe that you can suffer a colossal collapse of common sense and make crazy decisions like this one.
If the belief has been instilled that you actually can make such impossibly demanding judgments, then I suppose there will exist AARs who feel confident they can tell the difference in the position of a moving ball between it overlapping the goal line by one millimeter, or being one millimeter beyond the line.
Of course, they’re wrong, pathetically so. But they are, sad to say, only doing what they’re told to do. Normally, when intelligent people are ordered to do something that is clearly impossible (and will get pilloried if they don’t get it right) you might expect them to raise loud objections. Not a word from our trusty referees. Not a word from our famous IFAB either, the rusty committee that FIFA likes to hail as “the guardians of the game.”
GLT looms anyway. This Euro 2012 misadventure will presumably hasten its arrival. IFAB is going to make the decision, which is itself a huge joke. The decision should be made by a competent body, not a group of soccer politicians who meet only twice a year.
The antis, led with decreasing conviction by Sepp Blatter, have basically run out of objections. Not that there arguments were ever that great anyway. How many times have I listened to Blatter or other FIFA guys go on about the importance of “real time,” that any system must show instantly whether ball was in the net, because the game cannot be stopped to look at a replay. Why not? Well, because the other team might go storming off to the other end of the field and score a goal, which you might have to call back. It was disappointing to hear Michael Ballack -- who has been eminently sensible and informative on the ESPN telecasts -- roll out that argument.
I’ve been watching this sport for nearly 70 years, all over the world, and I have no recollection of ever having seen a disputed goal-line call at one end followed immediately by a goal at the other. No doubt it has happened -- but it must be very, very rare.
It has also been argued that GLT should not be used as it could not possibly be afforded by about 90 percent of the soccer world and would therefore create an elite group playing by different rules. An argument that cannot be denied, but can only be countered by doing away with the pro game.
A more serious objection would arise if it could be shown that referees themselves are against GLT. A poll among first division referees from the world’s top soccer countries could settle that -- but who ever heard of such a thing? Referees finding a voice? That’s something else that, regrettably, I’ve found to be pretty rare in this sport.
GLT will be expensive, of course -- so someone is going to make money out of this. I doubt whether it will be any more accurate -- in absolute terms -- than focused human eyes. But it will -- one presumes -- be consistent in its decisions. It will not suffer a mental breakdown at the crucial moment.