Video assistance for referees – An incomplete picture

Video assistance for referees – An incomplete picture

Referee Viktor Kassai utilises video replay technology at the Club World Championships in Japan

In his haste to draw a line under the blighted tenure of Sepp Blatter, new FIFA president Gianni Infantino may have scored an own goal with his hasty desire to usher in Video Assistant Referee technology to elite competition.

You can see the thinking. Experiments with video assistance for referees have already started as part of the fulfilment of Infantino’s election promise that FIFA get back to the business of football after years mired in negative publicity and allegations of sleaze.

Live experiments are taking place in around 20 competitions this year, including the Confederations Cup in Russia which serves as the 2018 World Cup test event. England plans to allow referees to defer to replays in the FA Cup next season from the third round in January when Premier League teams enter the fray.

As Keir Radnedge says in his always astute World Soccer column that greeted Infantino’s debut at the IFAB summit in Wales in March 2016: “Infantino, eight days installed as president of the world federation on a high-profile platform of “bringing FIFA back to football rather than politics,” had every reason for wanting to be a cheerleader for a move which offers a revolution at the highest level of the game.”

It was announced in January 2016, that some very specific situations only, will be subjected to ref’s video-assistance.

They are:

1) Verifying disputed goals (including offside and goal-line calls),
2) For awarding red and yellow cards,
3) To aid correct penalty decisions,
4) To resolve cases of mistaken identity when an offence has been committed.

Fourth substitute

In addition, following the International Football Association Board (IFAB) conference of March 5th in Wales 2016, there are now also plans to allow a fourth substitute in a period of extra time in cup competition and to abolish the the so-called “triple punishment” of a red card, penalty and suspension for any player denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity within the penalty area.

Calls for video assistance have echoed down the ages. England’s disputed third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final, Frank Lampard’s wrongly disallowed World Cup goal v Germany in 2010 and the so-called ‘ghost goal’ by Liverpool’s Luis Garcia v Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League Semi Final are prominent controversies.

The Dutch federation have been driving the move to video assistance with a two-year pilot of their own. They presented their findings to IFAB in 2015 but a decision was delayed until the crowning of the in-favour Infantino in February, last year.

But in their haste to move forwards in pursuit of a quick PR win, Gianni Infantino and by extension IFAB, the ideas wing of world football, may be storing up a heap of trouble for the future.

At best IFAB have a chequered history. The 1886-founded International Football Association Board have maintained a simple remit since their first meeting in London’s Holborn Viaduct was attended by representatives of the UK’s home associations. That remit is, according to FIFA, to whom IFAB are affiliated, is ‘to keep a careful watch on the laws of football in order to ensure that it remains the world’s most popular sport.’

Understandably perhaps, IFAB also have a reputation for being conservative in nature, thorough in discussion and slow in execution, but there is a distinct lack of that trademark rigour here in the drive for video assistance for referees.

And it is worth bearing in mind that even IFAB’s legendary caution has not prevented them adding as many ‘misses’ as ‘hits’ to their roster of football law changes in the last 125 years.

So should we be nervous about this week’s IFAB statement from Wembley?

According to the FA’s Martin Glenn, IFAB are now willing to offer flexibility to individual countries ‘to tweak their football laws’.

Surely this must be the subject of some trepidation on the part of interested observers because on the face of it this is incredible as a statement of intent?

Martin Glenn, the English Football Association chief executive, who hosted the most recent 131st AGM of IFAB at Wembley in March 2017, says that his venerable organisation should forthwith be known as the ‘football promotion organisation, not the football prevention organisation.’

So, for example, temporary dismissals – known as sin bins in rugby – will be allowed for yellow card offences in youth, grass-roots and disability soccer, for those that want them introduced.

“It encourages better behaviour,” Glenn said. “We can’t put that in the elite end of the game because that has to look similar all over the world but the far bigger picture is – let countries try different things to promote football.”

IFAB has also given national federations the freedom to decide how many substitutions are allowed in “lower levels of football,” but not games involving the first teams of top-flight competitions and senior international sides.

FA Cup trial

England’s FA Cup will be used to trial another potential law change next year, when VARs (Video Assistant Referees) will be used from the third round onwards. This is on the proviso that the host stadium can accommodate enough camera positions.

Will this lead to different games in the same competition being refereed to a different standard when the FA Cup gets serious? Maybe yes, maybe no.

The problem is though, that football’s fundamental appeal lies with the standardisation of easily understood rules – at every level of the game. Pull at that piece of string, with local or individual competition tweaks, and you could well see that pleasing cohesion unravel as one global game becomes a series of local ones. Football, in its desire to appear responsive, proactive and modern in the post-Blatter era is in danger of answering a question that nobody is asking. And the effects could be both unintended and broadly negative.

The use of a fourth extra time substitute will also be made available to managers in the FA Cup Quarter Finals in March 2017.

Speaking to reporters after the IFAB Annual General Meeting, Martin Glenn said: “With the Cup now adopting a straight knockout format, the introduction of a fourth substitute in extra-time will bring extra intrigue and interest.
“From a technical point of view, it will be interesting to see how managers use the chance to make an additional substitution in such high-profile games and the impact it has on the final result.”

So far it has only led to confusion, leading to a touchline altercation between the confused bosses of Ayr United and Queens Park, the referee and a female linesman (none of whom appeared sure of the protocol) when the innovation was recently trialled in a Scottish Cup fourth round replay tie at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in January.

But of course, such things are mere teething problems – questions of effective communication for the full roll-out.

Nonetheless, the implementation of the latest football innovations does not exist in isolation. Indeed it must be viewed through the prism of IFAB’s track record for effective change management.

In the credit column, innovations such as allowing access to two and then three substitutes in play (1970) and (1995), a red card for dangerous, lunging tackles (1998) and banning keepers handling back-passes (1992), a law change instigated by Michel Platini, have all made football faster, safer and a better spectacle for fans.

The Golden Goal (2002) designed to invigorate extra time periods (yet doing the exact opposite), pointless experiments with kick-ins instead of throw-ins, and the NASL 35-yard anti-offside line, were abject failures, total turkeys.

The now due for alteration, so-called “triple punishment” (Law 12) of a sending off, penalty and suspension for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity within the penalty area, and football’s ongoing inability to find an offside law that is agreeable to all stakeholders in football, have been IFAB’s biggest decision to make. And a decision long overdue too. Football needs offside for tactical and cultural reasons, and its reinterpretation looks like a task to far for Infantino’s poster boy Marco Van Basten.

The easy PR hit pursuit of video assistance for refs may not prove to be another turkey but it would become an albatross to hang around the neck of Gianni Infantino, as its greatest advocate, should it fail or flounder.

As World Soccer’s Keir Radnedge said in March: “The four British home FAs plus FIFA have yet to decide whether the experiments should be conducted with a ‘man in a van’ or at pitch-side; whether the referee should liaise only via audio link or run to a screen; and how to deal with debatable incidents while play flows on.

A year on, is there any definitive sense that there now exists what might be called ‘a rock solid plan’ in place? Because as long as there isn’t one, then we’ll have the cart placed before the horse.

Regardless, video assistance is coming. And imminently thanks to Infantino’s urgency.

A proposal from England’s FA to give coaches a ‘joker’ in the form of a restricted right of appeal on decisions was debated and discarded last year; but says Keir Radnedge: “such a complex issue should never even have reached the substantive debate of the annual meeting in Cardiff.”

Typically IFAB, as the anointed conservative guardians of the game, would usually be seen to notably dampen down expectation not making a move until all i’s were dotted and all t’s crossed. But here we have an unusual situation with Infantino, a Swiss-born lawyer appearing to be distinctly playing against type. Has he failed to consider the small print while making his IFAB debut in Cardiff and with IFAB following it through in London, a year on?

“This has all my support and backing. Today we have taken really a historic decision for football. FIFA and IFAB – IFAB and FIFA – are now leading the debate and not stopping the debate,” The 45-year-old FIFA President told IFAB in Cardiff 2016, while notably appearing to stop debate and sanction action instead.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino © FIFA

The post-Blatter era

No-one, IFAB watchers like Radnedge say, is even considering the possibility that as good an idea as video assistance could be that there is no fallback position and that it could be ignominiously scrapped if tests prove negative or systems unworkable.

It’s five years since IFAB first rubber-stamped the introduction of technology into football. And this was despite significant opposition from Sepp Blatter, Infantino’s predecessor.

Initially, evaluations were restricted to goal-line technology – determining whether (or not) the ball crossed the line. And the new man is keen to, use this platform at last year’s Cardiff IFAB meet-up, to underline the change in regimes and demonstrate that FIFA has embraced a “new era” post-Blatter.

As such, Infantino, who is presumably not a stupid man as a qualified lawyer and former Secretary General of the International Center for Sports Studies (CIES) at the University of Neuchâtel, appears to be playing a high stakes game. In his attempts to curry instant favour as a football moderniser, as opposed to a back-room politician, he really is running the risk that if this big opening play fails then his credibility will never recover.

And here is exactly what is at stake.

The introduction of video assistance as good as it feels in theory definitely has the potential for undermining officials’ authority on the field with players and weakening their resolve in the face of intimidatory pleas that they review each and every contentious outcome via a screen.

We can only imagine this facility being put to bad uses by grandmasters of gamesmanship such as Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone. Players and coaches alike will see video assistance as a time-wasters’ charter for teams protecting a fragile lead. And also as an opportunity to ‘get inside’ officials’ heads and sow their insidious seeds of doubt.

The character and calibre of referees will potentially be diminished too in the matter of maintaining their general decisiveness. Will they duck out of tricky decisions knowing that the safety net of a man in a van or in the stands can make that final, definitive call? And will this drip, drip of doubt seep into other aspects of their general performance?

We won’t know the answer to this until video evidence is truly live and we have a decent sized sample of real decisions with real consequences for results.

And then there’s the issue of white heat game situations themselves. A wrongly permitted goal can be correctly chalked off by video assistance. But the situation is not the same if a good goal has been denied, say by a wrongly blown foul or offside. Then defending players can legitimately say that they had responded to a flag or whistle and would not have hesitated had the play unfolded naturally – as it would have done when a ‘good’ goal is scored. What a mess this could be.

And we haven’t even touched yet, on the implications of relying on video evidence as an opportunity for those hell-bent on match fixing. And surely there must be many?

Nor have we considered the personal safety of those charged with analysing the live footage in the stadium if they are also adjudicating on game-changing decisions.

Jonathan Ford, CEO of the FA of Wales and IFAB’s de-facto host in 2016, appeared to have kept his wits about him when he said that initially at least, the referee is likely to run to the halfway line to review contentious incidents on an iPad, as relayed from a multi-camera system covering every area of the pitch.

‘Half-cooked experiment’

Surprisingly, one of the most vehement opponents of the proposals as they stand is a man that knows a thing or two about video replays, the veteran BBC and ITV broadcaster Gerald Sinstadt. He has used his column in The Stoke Sentinel to condemn what he calls a ‘half-cooked experiment’.

He says: “If a referee awards a penalty which replays prove to be incorrect, a free-kick can be awarded to the defending team. Justice will have been seen to have been done.

“But suppose he has waved away the penalty claim and allowed play to continue? How soon does the video assistant “flag up” an error he believes he has seen? Hopefully, in less than the 10 seconds it might take for a goal to be scored at the other end.

He says: “Here’s another question. Once the video assistant has caused play to be halted, what happens if the slo-mo replay doesn’t confirm what he thought he saw at full speed at the time? And here’s another question. How confident is anybody that replays will always provide a definitive answer within a few seconds? Have we forgotten the half-time pundits reviewing an incident without being able to agree?”

And of course we are all blithely assuming that video assistance will be a panacea but that need not necessarily be true. As the voice of many famous big match commentaries, Gerald Sinstadt says: “Suppose, in the calm of half-time “analysis,” an error is identified that the video assistant did not “flag up”? Where does that leave the system’s credibility?”

With so many questions still up in the air it was left to the Welsh FA’s Jonathan Ford to dampen down the flames of potential controversy last year.

The IFAB man Jonathan Ford said: “We want to be ready only when we are ready. We wanted to give ourselves the latest date [for a start]. We are not quite ready. It is a lot more complicated when you look at it. The likelihood is we will test off-line first – ‘hermetically sealed’ we call it – to make sure the protocols are right before we switch to live testing.

He says: “Above all we don’t want to spoil the fluidity or beauty of the game.”

And that is a sentiment that every true football fan will definitely agree with. But for the moment at least, video assistance appears to be generating far more potential questions than answers due to the administrators’ wish to push their plans through quickly.