COLUMN: FIFA needs more eyes on the prize

[MY VIEW] A week before the start of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, which the grand lords at FIFA have again decreed will not be fouled by video replay or additional officials, two other major sports – at least in North America – give perspective on the current stage of technology’s role.

In Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night, a 4-3 Philadelphia overtime triumph against Chicago was halted three times for video review of goal-line incidents. The incidents ran the gamut of possibilities: the first involved a goal not given at the time but awarded upon video review; the second ruling, that the puck had not crossed the line, was upheld by review that showed it had skittered right along the line; and the third ended the game in sudden-death overtime upon video evidence the puck had crept an inch or so over the goal line before being cleared.

Baseball has been roiled with debate and controversy since Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game – which would have been the third this season but only the 21st in more than 100 seasons of recorded major-league play – when first-base umpire Jim Joyce ruled Jason Donald safe at first base on what would have been the 27th and final out of the game. Replay is used in major-league baseball, but only in cases of whether a batted ball has cleared a fence or line that designates a home run.

Video replays clearly showed that Joyce had blown the call. Galarraga, who was covering first base, had stepped on the bag holding the ball before Donald got there. Yet like the infamous Thierry Henry handball that set up a winning goal for France and eliminated Ireland in the European World Cup playoffs, there is nothing in the rule book that empowers this manner of ruling to be overturned after the fact. Commissioner Bud Selig rebuffed intense lobbying to overrule the decision and declare a perfect game under unspecified powers that enable him to take exceptional action in the best interests of baseball.

Hockey and baseball are rife with stoppages, unlike soccer, and so reviews normally don’t disrupt those games to a great extend. In the first and third Stanley Cup incidents, play continued after the goal-line clearances; officials reviewed them at the next stoppage, and ruled a goal had been scored. In case No. 1, play continued for one minute, 42 seconds before a whistle stopped play, and officials ruled a deflection by Scott Hartnell had crossed the line before a desperate lunge by Niklas Hjalmarsson cleared it. The goal horn sounded and the whirling red light went on, but play continued, as none of the on-ice officials had clearly seen what had happened to the puck.

One of the objections to video replay in soccer is the delay; another is deciding how and when that review should be done. Ideally, it would occur immediately after the incident in question, but discretion would be needed in many cases to choose the right moment. Waiting for at the next stoppage, as is the case in hockey, can work, but nobody knows what might happen -- a red-card offense, another goal or maybe no-goal, a melee -- prior to the next stoppage.

FIFA has rejected the use of goal-line cameras or other devices to determine if a ball has crossed the line, despite numerous and frequent examples of incorrect decisions. It has decided to continue its experiment of additional goal-line officials, though this, too, won’t be implemented for the 2010 World Cup.

I mention these other incidents not simply for their timeliness, but their possible impact beyond their current form. If a perfect game can be reviewed, what about postseason games? Surely, a World Series Game 7 is of least as much competitive value as the historic impact of a regular-season game in early June, even one of perfection. Hockey, like baseball with its home-run reviews, does not allow for any video review except to determine if a goal has been scored.

Soccer could easily adapt a form of video review, simply by using small lipstick cameras attached to the frame of the goal. Current FIFA regulations prohibit this, for whatever reason, but a goal could be equipped and wired very cheaply and simply. This can’t be done at every level of the game, of course, but for major regional and international competitions and first-division pro leagues it makes a lot of sense, except to FIFA.

Some observers have suggested cameras be used to review goalmouth incidents as well, but I don’t like this idea. Determining if a goal has been scored is of paramount importance to the sport’s integrity as well as the outcome of a match, and while such incidents are relatively rare, they occur often enough to call for an upgrade.

To better police action on the field, logic would indicate there should be more officials. Two referees on the field, plus two referee’s assistants and a bench (currently the “fourth”) official is one idea; another is the use of goal-line officials to closely monitor goalmouth action, where most the important controversies usually arise. An official standing just yards away might deter an Henry from knocking that ball down in the first place; the primary objectives of any change in officiating procedures are accuracy and deterrence. Meting out the proper punishment comes in a close second.

We can hope there won’t be a botched call or goal-line screwup that dumps a team out of the World Cup, and it can be argued that if the Henry fiasco didn’t convince FIFA to yank its head out of the sand, nothing will. The very cynical have floated the idea of what would have happened if an Irish player committed the same transgression to dismiss 1998 winner and 2006 finalist France, the native land of UEFA president and former international Michel Platini?

If the best we can hope for is goal-line officials who can monitor action on the field as well as serve as judges of balls near or on the goal line, so be it. I don’t advocate technology for its own sake, but rather for fairness and getting the call right. I accept the concept of “human error,” but if the involvement of more humans yields less error, I can go for that.

2 comments about "COLUMN: FIFA needs more eyes on the prize".
  1. maurice class, June 5, 2010 at 8:19 p.m.

    Here is my comment. The fact that football has had the human tradition of acknowleging the officials as part of the the sport and the pitch is a wonderful tradition. How much could it possibliy cost FIFA to increase the amount of sideline officials to 4 in each allWorld Cup Matches. If the team captain challenges a ruling, allow a conference with all the refs and umpire in charge to make a final decision. I don't think that the world needs the NFL solution of the video replay decision, but more official eyes in the process would only help the head umpire in these decisions. I have always been impressed by the skill of FIFA certified officials in performing their duties, but it only would make sense to increase the official over sight of these matches to maitain the purity that FIFA officials would want the world to believe exists in the competition.

  2. Bill Richter, June 6, 2010 at 2:05 p.m.

    4 sideline officials? Not a very good idea, as the AR running the line for offside could easily be interfered with by another official on the sideline.

    Put one on each goal line, with the sole responsibility of judging goal/no goal situations.

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