FIFA's Feeble Case Against Technology

By Paul Gardner

The April 2010 edition of FIFA World magazine features a significant document in which president Sepp Blatter makes the official FIFA "argument against technology."

And what a flimsy, ill thought-out argument it is, full of ambiguity, obfuscation, irrelevance, contradictions, exaggerations, and plain distortion. The ambiguity begins with the heading “Playing By The Same Rules.” Rules? As we know that FIFA uses the word “Laws” to describe the rules of the game, what are we talking about here? It is never made clear. Nor is it always clear what Blatter means by technology, but I think it can be reduced to television replays -- particularly those involved in goal-line incidents.

Blatter sets out nine reasons for rejecting what he sees as technology. All but one of them is flawed to a greater or lesser degree.

No. 1 The universality of the game - “the game must be played in the same way no matter where you are in the world. If you are coaching a group of teenagers in any small town around the world, they will be playing by the same rules as the professional players they see on TV.” If we’re talking about the “laws” -- yes, that is the aim. Otherwise, the statement is nonsense. Are we being invited to believe that a village game played on a bumpy and poorly marked field, with lopsided goalposts, no nets, no assistant referees, no lights, only one ball -- one could go on listing the possible deficiencies -- is played by the same “rules” as a World Cup game? That village field, for example, can be -- legally -- as cramped as 100 x 50 yards. Could Barcelona play its game on a 50-yard wide field? The notion that the game is, or can be, played “in the same way” everywhere is pure pie-in-the-sky.

No. 2 Really a repeat of No. 1 - The simplicity of the game is one of the its main attractions and “men, women, children, amateurs and professionals all play the same game all over the world.” I repeat -- this is nonsense. If it were true, then there would be no pro game. The top levels of the sport are known to be, are expected to be, are required to be, played under very different conditions from those of a village game.

No. 3 The human aspect: no matter which technology is applied ... a decision will have to be taken by a human being ... why remove the responsibility from the referee to someone else? And why not, when that “someone else” has a much clearer view of what is going on than the referee has? Blatter knows he has an utterly weak argument here, and he makes it even more pathetic by adding “It is often the case that, even after a slow-motion replay, ten different experts will have ten different opinions on what the decision should have been”-- an absurd exaggeration. There is also the point that the ultimate aim of goal-line technology is to have the decisions made by computers, not humans.

No. 4 Fans love to debate any given incident in a game ...” - which implies that fan disagreements are much more important than getting things right. Another pathetic argument.

No. 5 FIFA’s goal is to improve the quality of refereeing . .” And why would technology that helps a referee make the right call not “improve the quality of refereeing”?

No. 6 The financial aspect -- “modern technologies can be very costly and therefore not applicable on a global level.” Of course they’re expensive -- so are huge stadiums and pro player salaries. This is simply a repeat of the argument used in No. 1 and No. 2 -- an argument with the logical conclusion that we must regress the game, globally, to the lowest common denominator of the village field. In which case, how come FIFA allows sophisticated wireless communication between officials in pro games? -- something that is obviously beyond the means of the vast majority of the world’s soccer clubs. And why is the International Board continuing its assessment of the use of additional assistant referees?

No. 7 This one is not an argument against technology at all -- it is merely a claim that FIFA has done the technology industry a favor by letting them know that they are wasting time and money trying to develop goal-line technology -- because, however brilliant it may be, FIFA will never accept it.

No. 8 At last, a real case against technology - in short, where would it stop? If goal-line technology is accepted, “What would prevent the approval of technology for other aspects of the game? Every decision in every area of the field would soon be questioned.” That is a genuine fear, but one that -- since everyone is well aware of it and no one wants constant interruptions -- should be readily controllable.

No. 9 Association football is a dynamic game that cannot be stopped in order to review a decision Feeble, in the extreme. In a 90-minute game, we know that the average time that the ball is in play is only 60 minutes. There are numerous stoppages in a soccer game. Again, Blatter is clearly aware of the weakness of this argument, and again he attempts to strengthen it with ludicrous exaggeration: “It would also not make sense to stop play every two minutes to review a decision ...” No one is talking about “every two minutes” or anything even close to it. Goal-line replays would be a rare, but usually crucial, occurrence. But the most fatuous part of the “non-stop-play” argument is the assertion that reviewing a replay “would break up a game and possibly deny a team the opportunity to score a goal.” This is an attempt to conjure up the following scenario: after a controversial goal-line incident the ball, still in play, is instantly swept down to the other end of the field where a goal is scored. And how many times does that happen? I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it happen. So the basis for an important rule is to be a happening that hardly ever happens? If that is to be a criterion, then we’d better do away with goalposts, which have been known, on rare occasions, to collapse and kill people.

The ridiculous thing about all this is that Blatter is setting up a straw man anyway. In ball-over-the-line controversies, expensive goal line technology is not even necessary. Well-placed television cameras will do the trick in probably 95 percent of the cases – and, unless we’re in search of the chimera of perfection, I think we can live with the odd case where the cameras do not help.

There is also an issue that I have mentioned before in this column: we do not know what the referees themselves think about this. What evidence is there that Blatter’s diktats represent the view of the referees?

The idea that 21st century professional soccer games may be won and lost on a referee's guesswork -- when the means of replacing the guesswork with certitude are easily available -- is simply unacceptable. And Sepp Blatter’s attempts to justify this affront to common sense are so threadbare that they come over more as an endorsement than an indictment of technology.

4 comments about "FIFA's Feeble Case Against Technology".
  1. Kent James, April 5, 2010 at 8:25 a.m.

    As a retired college referee, I heartily applaud Paul Gardner's mockery of FIFA's luddite attitude. I think most referees want to get the calls right, and anything that can help them do that should be encouraged. Goal line decisions are the ideal place to start. This is not an interpretation, but a simple "did it cross the line" question. Referees are usually out of position to make such a call, and assistant referees often are (unless the 2nd to last defender happens to be on the goal line, or the Assistant referee is as fast as the shot traveling towards the goal). As a referee, I'd much rather correct a bad call during the game than allow it to stand as irreversible.

  2. Mark Sutton, April 5, 2010 at 8:42 a.m.

    In Seth's everybody should be the same mentality he needs to wake up and get out of the Ivory Tower more. We don't play with $120 balls on manicured fields like the pros. We use $15 balls on any blade of grass we can find.

  3. haendel lazo, April 5, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.

    I think that the world needs another federation, in other words FIFA is a dictatorship not acceptable in this century, besides that main events are not free, like world cup it can cost millions of dollars to a country to prepare for it, only to leave it in the hands of a referee than can't see everything that happens on the field like hand balls, fake fauls etc.

  4. Karl Schreiber, April 6, 2010 at 1:03 a.m.

    I do agree with Paul in many points. Especially the one where he emphasizes there are many different levels of the game.
    Fundamentally, the laws of the game should be kept simple. Simplicity of the rules is the major reason for the popularity of the game!
    Technical aides for the referees not already permitted by the Laws of the Game should be considered only for matches at the very highest levels, such as those under the direct auspices of FIFA or the continental federations. The line would probably be drawn as a function of the money involved… But then, the equipment (to monitor the ball completely crossing the goal line…) should work at a 100% reliability level, not 95% as Paul suggests. Also, neither soccer writers not FIFA presidents should speculate which technology would do the job. That should be left to professionals to work on and to substantiate.
    I have one major concern in this discussion about sophisticated (and expensive) technical aides to assist in the decision whether a goal has been scored: Would the next step be an escalation to expand expensive methods to check for infractions inside the penalty area (after all, a penalty kick is almost a goal…!) and finally to offside?
    Since I haven’t refereed or coached for quite some time, I revisited the Laws of the Game and found we, FIFA and every other organization below it, still are blatantly allowing violations of Law 8 – Start and Restart of the Game, specifically kick-offs, by tolerating one player actually being outside his/her team’s half of the field. And what about penalty kicks?! OMG!
    And then I found this amazing addition since I last checked, to Law 4 – Equipment. Referees are now supposed to check that “undershorts are of the same color as the shorts”…!
    I think I understand where Sepp Blatter is coming from. It was so simple playing pick-up games after school or after work. And to a point I understand sports writers, team managers and all the others who want to help make the Game more sophisticated. I’m glad I now can just sit back and watch what’s happening. But I sure hope we first enforce the laws that are in the books before we invent new ones.

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