Soccer’s authorities spent years agonizing over whether to introduce goal line technology, yet its use would not have solved any of the recent refereeing controversies which have blown up in Italy, England and Brazil.
Video replays, on the other hand, would instantly have cleared up any doubts, yet they have barely been discussed by football’s rule-makers and remain firmly off the agenda.
The paradox has been highlighted in Brazil where the result of a match has been put under investigation because, although match officials made the right decision, there is a suspicion they used information from television replays to do so.
Millions of television viewers were instantly able to see that Palmeiras striker Hernan Barcos punched the ball into the net Diego Maradona-style when he scored against Internacional in the Brazilian championship on Oct. 27.
The referee initially missed the incident but, amid outraged Internacional protests, agreed to consult the other match officials and then changed his mind. Internacional went on to win 2-1.
Palmeiras , however, claimed officials made their decision after speaking to television staff who had seen the replay and Brazil’s top disciplinary tribunal provisionally declared the result void pending an investigation.
It is not the first time officials have been accused of breaking the rules by using replays to make the right decision.
There was considerable debate after the 2006 World Cup final that Zinedine Zidane was only sent off for his head-butt on Italy defender Marco Materazzi after the fourth official saw the incident on a TV replay.
Several minutes elapsed before referee Horacio Elizondo dealt with the matter and he did so only after Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon drew the assistant referee’s attention to what had happened.
But FIFA brushed aside the suspicions, and the possibility that the final would have to be replayed, saying the incident had been ‘directly observed’ by the fourth official Luis Medina Cantalejo from his position at the side of the pitch without the use of a monitor.
There was another bizarre episode at the 2010 World Cup, on the same day that Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England against Germany prompted FIFA to re-open the debate on goal line technology
A stadium screen replayed Carlos Tevez’s opening goal for Argentina against Mexico 3-1 and, in doing so, clearly showed it should have been ruled offside.
Eighty thousand people knew the correct decision within seconds and the Mexican players surrounded the referee urging him to look at the screen but the official had to go by what his own eyes had told him.
Other sports have embraced video umpires, notably the two codes of rugby and cricket. In rugby union, for example, a Television Match Official can rule on whether the ball has been grounded for a try while in rugby league officials can go further back to check for offside or knock-ons during the build-up to a score.
Awaiting the video verdict on a batsman’s fate has become part and parcel of cricket, as officials use a combination of TV replays and other technology, while teams are allowed a set number of challenges to umpire’s decisions.
Serie A’s Catania would certainly have benefited from a similar system last week.
The Sicilian side had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the first half of their match against Juventus and then were beaten 1-0 by a goal in the second half which replays showed should not have stood.
On the same day, Oct. 28, Lazio had a goal wrongly ruled out, also for offside, in a 2-0 defeat at Fiorentina while Liverpool had what should have been a last-minute winning goal at Everton also disallowed in the English Premiership.
On Saturday, Stoke City manager Tony Pulis called for the retroactive use of video evidence to punish divers, believing that the free kick from which Norwich City beat his side 1-0 in the Premier League had been wrongly awarded.
“It should be taken out the of the referee’s hands and looked at on the Monday (after the match),” he told the BBC. “We should have a rule that people will view it on Monday from different angles. It’s very, very difficult for referees to see on the day.”
But why wait until the Monday, when all that can be done is to punish the alleged diver, when the decision could be quickly corrected on the spot by an official in the stands with a monitor?
FIFA have argued that video evidence would disrupt the flow of the game. But that has not been the case in rugby and cricket, where anticipation of the big-screen verdict is part of the fan experience.
In any case, the inevitable arguing and protests which arise when a team believes it has been wronged also stop play and can lead to yellow and red cards which further distort the final result.
Catania lost their composure after their goal was disallowed against Juventus and had four players booked in quick succession.
After years of debate and a u-turn by president Sepp Blatter in 2010, soccer’s rule-making body the International Football Association Board (IFAB) finally gave the go-ahead to the use of goal-line technology in July.
But IFAB was also adamant that the use of technology would stop there.
“None of us are considering any type of technology which would interfere with the free-flowing nature of our game,” said Alex Horne, the English member of the IFAB.
Yet only a fraction of footballing controversies involve decisions over whether the ball has entered the net or not, while goal line technology is expensive to install and it has required a year of painstaking tests to find two systems which FIFA considers reliable.
With such few benefits, the whole debate about goal-line technology may have been little more than a red herring, distracting attention from the more wide-ranging benefits of video replays.