Baseball, they say, is a game of inches. While soccer, of course, is a game of feet (there’s a pun in that, for those who care about such matters). But soccer, too, is a matter of inches. In fact, with the relentless march of increasingly accurate methods of measuring, it would appear to be turning into a sport of microns.
There are two traditionally famous moments in soccer when it is of some importance to apply accurate measurement. Goalscoring for a start: If you’re not sure exactly where the ball is, you may rule out a legitimate goal, or allow one that is not legitimate. And offside: is the attacking player, or some part of him, beyond the second-last opponent or not?
We now have goal-line technology to decide, impartially, the goalscoring problem. And television replays consistently show how remarkably accurate the assistant referees are in their judgment on offside plays.
So, things are working well? Not so fast. They work well until the measurements called for become very small. Not exactly infinitesimal, but where fractions of an inch are involved.
The West Ham United-Chelsea game on Saturday underlined the problems. Chelsea, by my way of looking at things, was denied one, possibly two, goals because of measurement problems.
In the first half, during a confused, scrambling play in the West Ham goalmouth, it looked very much as though Chelsea had managed to force the ball across the goal line for the tying goal. The TV replays supported that view, without being conclusive.
So up came the GLT images. The first one -- call it the long-range one -- strongly indicated that, as the rules require, all the ball had crossed all the line. Meaning a goal. Then we zoomed in, we got a close-up version. The TV commentator was impressed, remarking that only “three-quarters of the ball” was over the line. Which would mean no goal. But his estimate that 75% of the ball was over the line was way off. It was closer to 95%.
We’re relying on GLT being that accurate, that a mere sliver of the ball is measurable. But as the measurements get smaller -- let’s say that 99.99% of the ball crossed the line -- can we really trust GLT to measure 00.01%, or even less, of the ball? Even if we can, is it anything to be proud of that we’re willing to rule out goals on such an ultra-fine and absurdly pedantic basis?
Another version of the sport’s anti-scoring mentality was seen a little later in the West Ham-Chelsea game. In the 44th minute, Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas was ruled offside by the AR when he was in a great position for a clear shot on goal (actually, he did get off the shot, he did score -- but only after the referee’s whistle had blown).
The TV commentators seemed to agree with the call, though admitting that it was very close. The replays suggested that it must have been, yet again, a micro-measurement that condemned Fabregas -- if indeed, he was offside at all. Maybe the tip of his kneecap offended. Also involved in the decision is the exact moment at which the ball was passed to him -- and that is not easy to establish either.
Again, the utter stupidity of such decisions is what offends. You won’t find it written down in the rules, but the generally accepted modus operandi for ARs in close calls is to give the advantage to the attacking player. Not to make call, in other words.
I can find no reason for praising an AR who makes an impossibly close call like this -- even if the use of some super-sophisticated measuring device may later suggest that he was right, by a couple of layers of skin. Such measurements cannot be made by an AR, guesswork is inevitable, and the guess should favor the attacking team. It’s neither necessary nor possible for the AR to show us that he can be as finely tuned as GLT.
Dodgy offside calls of the type mentioned above (fortunately, they’re not too frequent) would be almost eliminated by ARs being quicker to apply the advantage-to-the-attacking–player rule. As far as this business of all the ball having to cross all of the line goes, the simple question to ask is Why? It would be a lot fairer if only half the ball were required. Or better still, for a more attack-oriented game, any part of the ball. Difficulties of measurement? Not more than with the current system, and surely not anything that GLT can’t handle.
Maybe there is a system waiting to be invented that will give 100% guaranteed incontestable measurements all the time. That will be fine for the top pro leagues and tournaments. The rest of soccer, the other 90% or whatever it is, will just have to continue relying on eyesight. Which can for sure spot half a ball just as easily as it can the whole ball.