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    Volume 9 Issue 28| July 9, 2010|

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Making the Beautiful Game Better?

Debate over goal-line technology reignited last week after England and Mexico fell victims to refereeing blunders during their round-of-16 matches at the FIFA 2010 World Cup; the errors prompted an apology from FIFA President Sepp Blatter and the decision on Tuesday not to retain those responsible during the rest of the competition.

Blatter and his ailing associates, who concluded three months ago that technology should not be introduced to soccer, then conceded the need to revisit the issue, but stopped short of considering video replays in deciding possible game infringements.

To soccer fans, however, it's time for the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to use technology to the game's advantage. While everybody can appreciate the randomness of the game like the Netherlands scoring by pure chance against Brazil nobody can feel okay about unjust officiating that can destroy the hopes of a team and its supporters.

This is the core issue of technology, which has been underestimated by the FIFA's law-making body, the International Board. It decided before this World Cup to halt two ongoing experiments that would use technology to the game's advantage.

Instead of pursuing the idea of microchips in the ball or using cameras to see if it has crossed the goal-line, the board recommended the introduction of two additional assistant referees to improve the quality of decisions.

Blatter stressed at that time that denying the use of goal-line technology and video replays was in line with maintaining the universal spirit of the beautiful game: “We have 260 million people directly involved in the game. If we maintain the laws of the game ... it's so easy to understand ... We have to live with errors, (soccer) has to keep its human face.”

But last Sunday, this is what happened: Fans were up in arms, incensed by unfair decisions that affected the outcome of the games. The refereeing blunders meant that two fine teams didn't make it to the next round of the competition. Such blunders are bad for the sport as a whole.

Germans have long complained that England was unfairly awarded the decisive goal in the 1966 World Cup final when Geoff Hurst's shot bounced off the underside of the crossbar. Yet, everybody acknowledged that Sunday's 20-metre shot from midfielder Frank Lampard clearly did cross the line, except for Germany goalie Manuel Neuer who played the ball like it had merely bounced off the bar. If England had got back to 2-2 at that moment, it could have been different.

Such incidents as the ball crossing the goal-line without acknowledgement, players kicking a goal while offside or controlling the ball with their hands without the referee or an assistant having a decisive view, remain unfortunate flaws in the beautiful game.

Carlos Tevez was offside by a mile when he headed the ball into the goal and eventually helped Argentina to claim a 3-1 win, French captain Thierry Henry clearly used his ball-juggling skills during France's World Cup play-off win over Ireland, and Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona is remembered for his infamous 'Hand of God' incident at the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, to name just a few.

This makes FIFA's gamble with soccer's credibility all the more inexplicable. In this high-tech age where other sports have already made the transition in adopting technologies to assist referees, the International Board should be leading the way not lagging behind.

According to the New York-based Nielsen Company, which recently surveyed 27,000 people in 55 countries on questions related to the World Cup, about two-thirds thought that video replays should be used to avert refereeing blunders like those that have marred the two recent games.

Sixty-five per cent of them also would back the use of video replays during major competitions. Only about one in ten respondents argued that the ban should stay, while the rest were undecided, the research company said in a statement.

But if the refs need help, could video replays and goal-line technology, which are already used in other major sports such as basketball, American football and cricket, really improve officiating? Should technology take over more and more refereeing decisions in goal-scoring situations despite the risk of slowing down the games?

Lousy calls already plague the National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) despite the network of cameras that people at the US's Homeland Security would kill for. Even if the right camera angle is available, the referee will still have to navigate an increasingly complicated rulebook to get it right.

During the 1998 World Cup, just minutes before the final whistle of Norway-Brazil, Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo was pulled down in the penalty area. The controversial penalty kick, signalled by the American referee, was strongly decried by international media based on multiple video replays that raised doubts of foul play. The controversy ended two days later after pictures published on-line from a Swedish TV crew eventually showed the Brazilian taking Flo down inside the penalty area, pulling on his jersey.

The argument, for now, is that technology is a road FIFA should go down, but very carefully. Video replays and goal-line technology are not necessarily a boon because as long as humans make the first or the last call, no matter how many reviews are packed in between, mistakes are inevitable.

The China Post

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