30th July 1966, and Geoff Hurst has just not scored England’s third goal. Yes, that’s right, some modern analysis shows that ball did not cross the line. Who cares right, we scored a fourth, the World Cup was ours, and we weren’t going to give it up.
Over 50 years on and The Three Lions’ search for another major trophy continues, some things don’t change… but some do.
If you navigate over to ye olde YouTube and search for goals that never were, or something similar, you will find a plethora of clips showing how referee’s have got it wrong. From hitting a stanchion and rebounding back into play to Frank Lampards non-goal that bounced at least three feet over the line.
It has taken us a while, but now that FIFA have ousted the crook that is Sepp Blatter (not that it was all his fault), football is moving forward. The guys who brought us hawkeye in tennis, developed goal line technology, and we have the video assistant referee (VAR). So, we have all the tech, and that means no offside decision is wrong, all penalties given are ‘stone-wallers’ and red cards are only dispensed where necessary right? Wrong.
The 2018 World Cup is in the latter stages of the group phase as I write this, so many matches have been played. England fans have seen a record 6-1 win, and been able to pour scorn on the Argentinians. So ‘It’s Coming Home’ right? Er… not sure, get back to you on that one. My point here is that there have been lots of matches played and lots of VAR to, well, question.
It began quite well, referees generally kept on doing what they do best, getting most of the decisions right, and VAR sat patiently waiting for its turn. Typically, it didn’t have to wait long to help out.
So what part does VAR play in this, well it all sounds very well planned out. Any decision involving a goal, penalty, red card or mistaken identity will be reviewed back at VAR HQ and relayed to the referee if they believe a ‘clear and obvious mistake’ has been made.
Here’s where it all goes a bit ‘Pete Tong’, you see whilst goal line technology is a black and white decision, it’s either overthe line (sorry Frank, yours was miles over), or it ain’t. When it comes to intent, things are open to interpretation.
Some penalties have been given when they should not, and others have been missed when surely they should have been given. Yes Harry Kane, you were subjected to moves in the first game against Tunisia that a WWF star would have been proud of, and yet nothing is given? How can this be?
If you happen to be the local conspiracy theorist it will be because Putin is in control of all decisions, has paid referees to make sure Russia get an easy ride, and anybody not falling into line gets the Sergei Skripal treatment.
For the rest of us I believe there is a much simpler explanation, and it’s our old friend interpretation. FIFA try to make the rules clearer, the offside rule has changed many times, there was the time you weren’t off if you weren’t interfering, and the time there had to be daylight between players, at the moment I believe if any part of the body that can be used to score a goal is further forward than your opponent’s last but one player, you’re offside?
Anyway, let’s leave the offside rule right there, I have no intention of opening that can of worms, the point being that FIFA have tried so many times to take the interpretation out of the game.
How the hell do you do that? Yes, there are steps you can take, don’t put a Columbian referee in charge of a game between Chile and Peru, because let’s face it, someone’s going to lose an eye. Make refereeing a profession and stress all decisions should be impartial and without bias. But we are all human, and what if one side insults the referee? What if the referee gives a decision, thinks in hindsight he was wrong, feels guilty, and gives another dodgy decision?
Do two wrongs make a right?
This is where the battleground is. I remember John Inverdale questioning why football was having such a difficult job integrating video technology into the sport when tennis and rugby (he was commentating on the Six Nations at the time) have done it so well. Ok John, well tennis is only about whether the ball is in or out, and let me say as a child of the 80’s I’m glad it wasn’t around when McEnroe was playing, just think about how much great TV we would have missed out on. Seriously. Then there’s rugby, it’s generally only used for tries, no need to use it for violent conduct, the brutes that play rugby are gentleman and call the referee ‘Sir’. If one of these guys smashes another in the face, they mean it, will own up to it, and buy their victim scotch on the rocks after the game.
Now, lets look at footballers, a bunch of play-acting, diving, cheating millionaires, again you can go to YouTube and find the most cringeworthy examples should you wish to. Remember Terry Butcher, and his blood stained shirt, those were the days.
At every twist and turn these prima donnas feign injury, fall over ghost legs, get a tap in the chest and act like a sniper and a .50cal were to blame. They are corrupt, they want to win at all cost. This of course is the fault of companies like the Premier League that have injected so much cash into the game, these guys don’t know what to do with it… except Jerome Boateng of Germany, he spends his on shoes, over 650 pairs at the last count!
This is the problem, these cheats are always trying to get one over on our man in black, and although a lot of these will be weeded out, there are still some situations where an opinion is required.
The current penalty rules regarding handball ask the referee to decide if an arm is in an unnatural position, and if the distance between the arm and the player striking the ball is sufficient that the offender could have got out of the way.
So what is the answer here? Do we adopt tennis’ paradigm and give each side 3 challenges per half, if they are correct they keep the challenge and if not, lose one. Do we introduce retrospective VAR, which would surely undermine the referee and throw the game into complete chaos. Or maybe we change the team in charge, instead of 3 referee’s, lets have a couple of ex-footballers in the mix?
Or do we ditch it and just accept that the referee is human and will get some things wrong. After all that’s what makes football, football. I’m serious, why do we love the game so much? Because every decision is faultless? Nope. We love it because we can go to the pub, sink several shandies and then argue, debate and bemoan. Alcohol fuelled interpretation is no better than the referee’s, but that’s what we enjoy.
Maybe we have to get the players to all wear those motion capture suits so we can analyse their limb movement, and be able to accurately measure the distance between arm and ball. Let’s face it wearable tech is in vogue, Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, even Google Glasses are supposed to be making a comeback.
When did our beautiful game become so ugly… yeah I know it was 1992 when the Premier League got involved
This, Mr Inverdale, is why it is so difficult to get this right in football, we don’t even have the luxury that Formula One is afforded, where the Race Director (Charlie Whiting) is the same at every race, so at least the interpretation is consistent.
These are early days for VAR, and we must persist:-
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
-Calvin Coolidge 30th President of the USA
I’m sure once FIFA take on board all my suggestions we will emerge the other side with a workable solution. One that will help the game, but still leave room for those ridiculous Sunday afternoon debates about how your team lost 3-0, but should have won. As the motto of Wolverhampton Wanderers tells us ‘Out of darkness cometh light’
Anyway, It’s Coming Home, I told you I’d get back to you on that one.