I thought everyone would have established bases on Mars and things by about 1985. I had books and things and a telescope, but it was cheap so when you looked at the moon, you couldn't see any detail, it just made it a bit bigger.The experiment with bye-line officials in the Europa League jars somewhat. Not that it's a bad idea per se — having someone in a position to spot offences in the maelstrom of the penalty area, which are often on the referee's blind side, could be a good idea. You wouldn't know that from the number of people poised to pounce on it like spoilt indoor cats who don't realise what a proper scrap is. But then, it was endorsed by Michel Platini, so, of course, it must be hare-brained/part of a nefarious scheme to erode Britain's sovereignty and introduce a federal Europe by the back door. When the wrong Fulham player was identified as the due recipient of a red card against Roma in October, it was seen by some as proof of ineradicable weakness, rather than one of those things that could be minimised given a chance. So count me amongst that small, bedraggled, stone-pelted crew happy to see that the IFAB last weekend sanctioned a possible continuation of the scheme.
The problem is less in the idea itself than in some of the other reasons given for its implementation. One was that it might make for a better-officiated game while sticking to the belief prevalent in Fifania that football should, as far as possible, remain the same from the World Cup final to the wheezy, hungover park match. But it's hard enough for many amateur leagues to send one ref to each game, let alone three. How they are to expand their officials pools by 67% when the numbers are actually in decline in many places is one for Derry City's board to figure out, perhaps. Maybe FIFA's one-size-Fitz-Hall vision is flawed, or is offered to us as an appeal to credulity.
The other fault is that Platini has presented it as, effectively, one option in an either/or. The notion that it could be complemented by additional technological means has been dismissed. Stark confirmation of this attitude came at the weekend with the IFAB's vote, by the power vested in it by the status quo, which ruled out any future employment of that demon Technology. Such was the wilful definitiveness of this decision, you could have stuck Ratzer's sig on it and called it bull.
Sorry, a bull. A bull.
The IFAB may have some hidden motive for their continued intransigence. (Did the Welsh and Northern Irish FAs side with FIFA to help maintain their independence as footballing nations, not to mention their disproportionately powerful positions in football geopolitics?) But it suffices for now to examine how they have sold this to us down here at the foot of the Mount. It's all about "football's human side", according to your caring, sharing FIFA PR department. "We were all agreed that technology shouldn’t enter football because we want football to remain human, which is what makes it great," said Patrick Nelson, the IFA's representative on the IFAB. His Welsh counterpart, Jonathan Ford, said: "The big moments in this sport — whatever they are — get supporters talking and go down in history. That’s what makes this sport so vibrant".
Where to begin? What lies beneath the whole issue was articulated by radio's own Ken Early when he said (forgive the lack a direct quote) that arguments about refereeing decisions are, in fact, the most boring in football. I don't totally subscribe to this, but it's not far from the truth. That the "what would the plebs have to talk about in their public drinking establishments?" line has been put forward apparently in deadly earnest is, thus, an insult. It reduces the game to a intermittent series of controversies rather than a varishaded system. It reduces the fan to being incapable of appreciating that complexity, to being someone only excited if provoked by a good old you-sez-I-sez about something mundane before settling it in the car park.
The IFAB's Luddite diktat encompasses a rejection of any kind of system — Hawk-Eye, say, or a chip inside the football — which might determine whether the ball has crossed the goal-line. Such mechanisms were "put on ice" when last considered two years ago; they have now been kiboshed forever, apparently. True, many calls a ref must make are based on interpretations of the rules (though many of these are themselves officially prescribed). But here is one type of decision which is — which ought to be — simple, beyond dispute: a binary decision, goal or no goal. If the technology does not yet exist to determine this (and how would we know without it being given as thorough a trial as the bye-line officials have been?), it may soon. The IFAB rejected the microchip on the grounds that it provided a mere 95% accuracy. Do they believe — even when such incidents usually happen incredibly quickly, often when the ball has thwacked off the underside off the crossbar — that the human eye, even three pairs of them, can do better?
Who knows? Anything is possible where FIFA are involved. If the aim is to provide moments that "get supporters talking and go down in history" whilst retaining the "human aspect of football", why not, for instance, get a blind child to draw lots to see which team will get a random twenty-point deduction? Why not spin the referee around every ten minutes? Why not allow each team to sneak a sniper into the stadium to have a maximum of one shot per game at a target of his or her choosing? Human, controversial, pub-chat fodder, who's a good likkul football fan, then? Eh? Eh? You are, aren't you? Yes you are! Yes you are!
The "human aspect" should not always be paramount, at least not when it is a euphemism for the actions of the see-no-evil monkey. But anyway, in ruling all video evidence undesirable, the IFAB have misrepresented it. Whether a ball crosses a line is a matter of physical fact; many other decisions are more complicated. We are still far from a time when the adidas autoref® can scan video of a contentious piece of play and return a call with greater than 95% accuracy. Human intercession is still necessary.
Which leads one to sympathise with the IFAB's cause, to a point. They are but one element in all this, one extreme. The other pole is exemplified by a television advert for the "Irish" edition of a certain Murdoch daily tabloid, featuring some of your favourite heavyweight ex-footballing gobshites (Cascarino! O'Leary! Ian Wrightwrightwright!) possibly reading copy written in the nocturnal emission of a News International exec about how video evidence just has to be brought in and it would solve everything and everything, so it would.
It wouldn't. It can't. Much is made of technology's power, of how a TMO could sort out a tricky diving incident and solve the Falklands issue to boot quicker than you could say "Havelange". This belief in the benevolent omnipotence of science and the inevitability of progress is somehow touching. It's retro-futurism as lifestyle choice, football-style. It's fanciful, though. When Sepp Blatter, following that 2008 IFAB meeting, talked about "really complicated goal-line technology such as ... the famous Hawk-Eye which is appropriate for tennis as the players can stop the game to challenge the decision", he was, no doubt, indulging in his shtick, ie. treating the listener like a simpleton. But accompanying the falsehood was a truth. The technological imperative is constrained by the desire to maintain the game's tried and trusted shape and integrity. The flow of a football game, its dearth of interruptions, is a precious quality not to be messed with. Whatever way technology might be used must adapt to fit football, not vice versa; it cannot simply barge in and make itself at home. The more enthusiastic proponents of that god Technology fail to comprehend that there would, by definition, be limits to its use: if every little thing were to be referred to the stands, a game would be of test-match length. Besides, many's the incident that fails to yield an immediate, incontrovertible solution, even on close, super slo-mo inspection. This is something so obvious to anyone who has watched any amount of football on the telly that it shouldn't need stating, but there you go.
So it is understandable why the IFAB would be hesitant with these things, why they delayed a decision on Hawk-Eye and the ball chip two years ago and the icing-sugar proposal last year, though it neither explains nor excuses the finality of this year's pronouncement. (Had they been in charge of football's rules in Victorian times, would they have outlawed the pea-whistle?) Wherever the limit of technology's dominion is set will be unsatisfactory to some. Were some (perceived) significant injustice to fall outside this remit, the howls to shift that limit further outwards would follow, themselves followed by the counterwails. The fundamentalists dominate the discussion, even though the best way forwards probably lies somewhere in the moderate, fuzzy expanse in between. Maybe the IFAB are right, after all: isn't this the very epitome of something we will "keep talking about ... again and again"? And again and again and again and again and again and...