Monday, 6 December 2010

Technology in Sport: It is time for football to catch up with the rest of the sporting world and implement technological assistance in the game

Technology in sport is something that I have seldom touched upon since starting this blog. However, following the dramatic incidents at the end of today’s Ashes Test, I thought now would be a good time to ask if technology should be used in the refereeing of football.

For those of you who are not following the Ashes, let me explain what happened. With the final delivery of the day, part-time spinner and double-hundred-scoring Kevin Pietersen took the potentially match winning wicket of Michael Clark. The umpire initially made the decision that Clark had not touched the ball with his bat and thus was not out. After review, which was called for by England (as one of the two reviews allocated to each team), the decision was overturned and Clark was sent back to the Pavilion.

Upon such decisive moments are sporting competitions won and lost.  The referral system in cricket is a prime example of how the use of technology can be used in an effective way. So too is rugby, in both forms of the game. NFL uses challenges and the NBA reviews last second shots to decide if they were taken in time. Tennis now uses hawk-eye. Even snooker uses technology when re-spotting balls after foul shots. What it does is simple; it helps eradicate human error where possible and offers valuable assistance to referees.

Humans will make mistakes. As Rob Marrs wrote during the referee strike in Scotland, people must accept that rather than chastising wrong decisions.  Implementing technological assistance will allow for the areas of uncertainty over crucial decisions to be dramatically reduced. It would also help to stop the repetitive ref-bashing that takes place in almost every post-match interview.

Purists and traditionalists may argue that technology would ruin a sport. They may claim that human error is part and parcel of the game and that the use of replays and reviews would hinder our viewing enjoyment. Ultimately, if done in the right way, I wouldn’t think that it would. That is, of course, crucial though. It must be done it the right way.

In rugby, technology is used after a try is scored to ensure that there is no reason not to award a team the points. This is a natural stop in the game. The match does not have to be put on hold mid-flow for this process to take place. Likewise, cricket is played in short, sharp bursts with breaks in between. A ball is bowled, a shot is played or not played and then the subsequent fielding or retrieval of the ball takes places. Then there is a pause. Thus, it is easy for a review to be called for after each of these sequences without disrupting the flow of the game.

Within football it may be more difficult to use technology in such a way. There would have to be clear rules and criteria put in place to specify when a referee could use the technology at his disposal to prevent the game being altered or becoming fragmented.  Allocating a set number of referrals to each side would not be an option. It would cause too much confusion and allow for the game to be disrupted too readily. Nor could the reviews be used over smaller incidents within a match. For example, it could not be used to see who to award a throw –in to or decide if it is goal-kick or a corner.

Also, I would question whether it should even be used for offside decisions purely because if it were to be used in such circumstances, the game would have to be stopped far too often. These may be important decisions but they are too common to use technological help for. I think here, most would agree, the referee can be entrusted to make a decision to the best of his ability and we can live with the consequences. I would accept that this is where the line becomes blurred, though.

Instead, technology should primarily only be used in a select number of incidents that directly impact upon the outcome of the game. The first and most obvious of these is goal-line technology - to simply check if a ball has or has not crossed the line. These are decisions that are too important to get wrong. With the TV cameras already available it would not be difficult to do either. The fourth official could have a monitor, watch a replay and inform the referee.

Secondly, it could be used for penalty decisions. Play could be stopped to check if a foul was committed, if there was a handball, if a player dived or if an infringement took place just in or outside the box. Again, this a critical moment in a match and if technology can help ensure that the right decision is made more frequently then surely it should be made available.

Thirdly, for off-the-ball incidents. Flailing arms that leaves players on the ground clutching their face can often result in red cards being shown or not shown at the wrong times. When one of these moments takes place, the event can be reviewed and the guilty party, whether it be someone throwing a sly elbow or someone rolling on the floor following a pat on the head, can be duly reprimanded. Putting these things on review for a panel to address at a later date seems somewhat unfair.

Players may be handed suspensions after the match but what consolation is that to the team who just played them and should have had a one-man advantage? It would also help in fighting the art of simulation that is becoming increasingly commonplace in the game. The guidelines would have to created and fine tuned but why not trial it in a select few leagues or competitions across the world and then FIFA can set about implementing it on a wider scale.

These are merely some brief thoughts on how technology could be utilised in a way that would not tamper too heavily with the fabric of the game. If it was only called upon for specific, game-changing moments then it would help prevent both the game becoming disjointed and wrong decisions at crucial times. There are working examples around the world of sport of using technology to help officiate a sport. It seems foolish for football to lag behind. If it is only brought in for two percent of decisions in a match then so be it, games are won and lost on such fine margins. 

Thoughts, comments and opinions please…


  1. I'm only in favour of video technology:

    Not a massive fan...


  2. Rob, there would certainly be benefits to keeping it black and white. Using it only to check if the ball crosses the line is primarily what you would want to see implemented. That being said, if it could be done in the right way, I think that technology could prove to be of valuable assistance to referees if it was made available for them to use at key, game-changing moments. But it must be done in the right way to avoid the game becoming disjointed and without a tested system it is easy to be put off by the thought of too many long stoppages.

  3. I am in favour of using technology to help referees but I think the problem is more cultural than technical. The current outrage at poor and inconsistent refereeing is based on the endless replays and analysis of controversial decisions. Restricting technology to a few incidents will leave everything else for analysis and criticism, for example offside or not, red card tackle or not and so on. While we watch/analyse football in this way there will always be controversy and abuse directed at referees.

    The only obvious area to introduce technology is goal-line technology, clearly the most critical of decisions and technology will make it a yes or no decision. I assume this will require a "video ref" to watch for this and inform the ref as soon as possible. I would be concerned if players were allowed to claim a review every time they got the ball near the line.

    On the award of a penalty, if the ref did not award a penalty, how would the attacking team challenge the decision? Would the game carry on and be called back by the "video ref" if appropriate?

    Off the ball incidents I feel should be possible do without technology. I always thought the Linesman/assisitant refs shoiuld be able to catch this, with the asst.ref remote from the action able to watch the rest of the pitch for such incidents.

    With such concerns over even the most modest use of technology it does require extensive testing, not so much in the validity of the technology but in assessing how players/managers/supporters/pundits would behave when technology is available. I fear it will just add something else to argue about - its what people do best!!

  4. I don't know but it has been quite hard to add an technological advantage to some sports but it is great that they want to implement it.

  5. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)


Previous posts