World sport — August 7, 2010 at 11:06 AM

Echoes of discontent

If you are from Spain, current World Cup champion, then recently concluded 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa probably went very well, as far as you are concerned. But if you are like the rest of us, chances are you are unhappy with the championship’s “human factor” errors which caused some teams to lose matches they should have won and vice versa. These errors could have been avoided if soccer’s world governing body and organizer of the World Cup tournament, International Federation of Association Football (commonly known as FIFA), allowed use of instant replay and/or goal line technology in the one-month long athletic match-ups.

No disrespect to Spain, but this begs the question: How true a champion is the “champion”? How can a team be regarded as true champion if the process used to select it as “champion” was flawed? It’s no secret that referees accepted illegitimate goals in some matches while some bonafide ones were disallowed. Against this setting, why in the world has FIFA stubbornly continued refusing use of  instant replay and goal line technology to making sure calls were neither missed nor called incorrectly? I am not talking about cheesy-ass calls; I mean calls that could have changed the outcome of the tournament.

Consider the following: United States in a group qualifying match with Slovenia found itself down 2 – 0 at half time. In the second half the Americans fought back and eventually were rewarded with two goals by the god of soccer, making the score 2 – 2. Then in the 85th minute the U.S team scored a goal that was nullified by a controversial and unexplained foul call from referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali. That goal should have put the U.S up 3 – 2. Referee Coulibaly was never able to explain why he disallowed that goal.

During a second-round match between England and Germany another wrongly disallowed goal occurred when officials failed to give England a goal on a ball that clearly passed the goal line. With England trailing 2-1 in the first half of Germany’s 4-1 victory in the round of 16, a shot from Frank Lampard from just outside the penalty area hit the crossbar and bounced down crossing the goal line, but referee Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay did not award a goal. Spectators, especially English fans in the stand and those watching from home via satellite, were baffled and could not understand why in the world a clean goal was disallowed. Replays showed the ball had crossed the goal line by several feet as it landed inside the net for goal.

If that goal had been allowed England could have played a different style and maybe that would have changed the outcome of the match. Obviously, the disallowed goal emboldened Germany while it demoralized England. You can accuse England all you want for not playing well enough and making mistakes when Germany counterattacked, but referee Lorrionda made a bigger mistake by disallowing what was, by all account, a good goal.

Enter Argentina-Mexico second-round match. Carlos Tevez scored on a short-range header midway through first half to give Argentina a 1-0 lead. However, replays showed Tevez was offside and the whole world could see it but, for some weird and unexplainable reason, the referee couldn’t. To the disbelief of spectators in the stand and those at home, watching via television, the goal was ruled to stand.

Brazilian Luis Fabiano in a Brazil-Côte d’Ivoire match didn’t even bother trying to deny he handled the ball on the way to his second goal. While walking away from the goal area after scoring you could see Fabiano in presence of the referee make a face to him as if “yeah, I used my hand and I know you saw it”. You could also see the referee laughing with Fabiono with a gesture on his face as if “yeah, I saw it, but hey…”

Fabio Quagliarella thought he scored a late equalizer for Italy, but he was ruled offside by the smallest of margins; a ruling that was disputed by the Italians and appeared to be an error on replays. The loss eliminated the defending champions early from the tournament during the group stage.

Also, Australian forward Harry Kewell was sent off in the 24th minute against Ghana after blocking a goal-bound shot with his upper arm. The arm was pinned against his body, but Swiss referee Roberto Rosetti showed Kewell the red card in the first-round match. Kewell couldn’t help that the goal-bound ball hit him where it did. What was he supposed to do? Chop off his arms before the tournament and played the match armless? I don’t know what else the young Australian could have done differently. The ball hit him inadvertently; he did not purposely reach out and touch the ball. Again, instant replay technology could have prevented the wrong call by the referee.

There is not enough space here to catalogue all the inadequacies of the 2010 World Cup tourney, but you get the picture, I believe. Had instant replay and/or goal line technology been used, the wrong calls and goal controversies which characterized the 2010 World Cup could have been avoided. Of course, the outcome of the tournament also could have been different, which means that the tournament champion could have been another country other than Spain.

By refusing enough technology presence in the games FIFA, it seems, is content with the controversies that surround the World Cup which is played every four years. In the past, before the advent of instant replay and other sophisticated technologies, these controversies were overlooked and considered part of the game because there were no real means to guarantee their resolution. Cheating maneuvers that miss referees’ eyes were condoned and cheered upon by fans of the offending player’s team. This is 2010 not 1930, and this should not continue or be condoned anymore by FIFA.

Recount of a 1986 World Cup tournament incident will suffice. Former Argentine world soccer super star, Diego Maradona, is famous (or infamous depending on how you see it), for his “Hand of God” goal against England in that World Cup? In a quarter-final round match Maradona scored two goals in a 2–1 victory over England that entered soccer history, though for two different reasons. The first goal known as the “Hand of God” was a handball by Maradona which the referee and lines men missed, while the second goal was a spectacular 60-metre meander through six England players and commonly referred to as “The Goal of the Century.” While the second goal was legitimate the first wasn’t. Replays showed that Maradona used his hand to score the first goal. Had FIFA used instant replays that first goal would have been disallowed and, consequently, not made it into history books.

The situation is dire. The credibility of the sport is on the line and FIFA cannot pretend anymore that it is not a big deal. For FIFA officials who continue to oppose instant replay and goal line technology because, in their judgment, referees and lines men are good as (or better than) these technologies, the 2010 World Cup blunders is your answer. Further, the argument that introducing these technologies would slow the game and make it uninteresting is hogwash. Currently, FIFA referees and lines men wear communication headsets which enable them to communicate among themselves during matches and also use it to receive information from another match official(s) somewhere in the vicinity. Isn’t that technology being used? If FIFA is that technology shy, then why even allow television cameras to record and broadcast matches? FIFA cannot pretend to be technology shy and yet use some of it.

Some people suspect the real reason for FIFA’s refusal is because its referees are against it. The referees are accused of not supporting the use of technology in matches because it will diminish the enormous power they currently wield in match officiating. The way things currently are, referees can dubiously or unintentionally affect the outcome of a tournament or match, but the use of instant replay and goal line technology will mitigate or prevent this from happening. The notion that soccer fans at home can watch replays during matches while referees and lines men can’t is preposterous. If the fans watching at home can see what really happened during a play just a few seconds later, then why can’t the referees enjoy the same technology to help them make better officiating decisions?

There are four major North American professional sports leagues viz:  Basketball, hockey, American football and baseball, and they all use varying forms of instant replay technologies to review game plays and official calls. Baseball was the last to introduce the technology, and uses it to the most limited degree, while American football has used it to the most success and with the most interaction from teams since 1999. Other minor marquee sports, such as tennis and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), also employ the technologies in limited capacities.

Use of instant replays has not diminished interests in these four major American professional sports leagues. Instead, it has raised fan interest and attracted more aficionados. World champions in these leagues are true world champions. Fans never question the validity or credibility of a team that is crowned a world champion because the process used to crown teams as world champions has integrity and transparency. “Human factor” errors are eliminated or greatly reduced. It is true that the introduction of these technologies mean that these sports are intermittently stopped for instant replay reviews, but that is a small price to pay when compared to the alternative which is lack of integrity in officiating, a far worse situation.

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter lately has been doing some talking on the subject. In a statement in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup he stated that “based on what FIFA experienced in South Africa, it would be nonsense not to reopen the file on technology at the next business meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in Wales.” Good rhetoric Mr. Blatter, but time is running out and FIFA must act quickly in order to avoid a backlash from, hitherto, loyal fans who have increasingly become frustrated by its lack of action on the matter.

No more excuses, FIFA. Just do it.

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