Don’t let tech kick football joy into touch
You can either treat the incredible story of Hiroo Onoda as one of foolishness or as a testimony to sticking to one’s principles.
Don’t remember Onoda? He was the Japanese soldier who hunkered down in the jungle for nearly 30 years, refusing to accept that World War 2 was over. It was not until 1974, when the handful of his comrades who had also held out succumbed to the elements and old age, that he came out of hiding.
As the use of technology in football gains acceptance, I cannot help but feel like Onoda. You see, I am one of the dwindling number of Neanderthals who believe that the purity of the beautiful game will be compromised if there is too much technological intrusion into the natural flow of things.
The apostles of video-assisted refereeing (VAR) bellow every time there are controversial decisions in big games. You will hear them moaning about how bad refereeing cost the “deserving” side glory.
They were singing their song this week, following Real Madrid’s much-debated victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinal.
They attributed the 6-3 aggregate score to what they believed were two offside goals by Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and a “dubious” second yellow card given to Bayern’s Arturo Vidal. Had the referee and his assistants been up to scratch, they argued, the outcome would have been very different. Just like Khanyi Mbau would still be black if skin lighteners had not been invented.
Carlo Ancelotti, the well-travelled Bayern coach, took the defeat like an inexperienced amateur, moaning as if he had not once benefited from borderline decisions during his long career.
“I know it’s football and it happens sometimes, but not this serious of a mistake. I believe we played very well. I thought we deserved more,” he said.
Then he reached for the technology panacea, saying that “perhaps it is time to have video”.
“You have to have a referee with more quality in a quarterfinal. Or have video. There are too many errors,” Ancelotti ranted.
Given the backing from commentators and pundits around the world, the outcome of Tuesday’s game will become the new rallying point for VAR campaigners.
A voice of reason came from one of Ancelotti’s charges.
A heartbroken Thiago Alcántara said: “We have been completely screwed over, but we can not change anything in the past.”
The midfielder was, however, against the dilution of the human element in the sport. He said that while VAR might help ensure more accurate decision-making, “it takes away the essence ... we just need officials to be competent enough to control these games”.
That is exactly the point. What sets football apart from the sanitised versions of other major sporting codes is that it has retained its essence. It is a 90-minute game played by 22 people, officiated by a referee and assistants. During those 90 minutes, the referee is the final arbiter. He or she is more powerful than the megacorporations that sponsor the game, the magnates who own the clubs, the millionaire sports-car driving celebrity players and the ferocious, emotionally charged fans who believe they know the rule book and have better eyesight than the officials on the field.
Referees also have the power to determine the quality of a game – they can make or break games with bad decisions, authoritarian handling or lax officiating.
But, over the past decade, there has been a movement seeking to wrestle this power away from referees and give it over to machines. For all his sins, greasy former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter used his enormous power to resist this movement. But even he could not stop the tide, eventually allowing for experimentation with goal-line technology. Today, this technology is the norm in major leagues around the world.
The victors now boast that it has removed the controversies around scoring goals. Gone are the heated “it was a goal, it was not a goal” debates that enlivened the existences of millions.
Thus emboldened, the killjoys are turning their attention to other aspects of the officials’ duties. They now want technology to rule on close offside decisions, a move that will strip the highly trained professional assistants of their roles.
Sensing an imminent breakthrough on the offside decision front, there are murmurs of a move on to the rest of the pitch. For the advocates of technology, the addition of a goal-post assistant is not enough. This too must be monitored by technology, as must some upfield touch-line calls. Talk has begun of technology assisting in foul and handball decisions.
The VAR evangelists say that football cannot stand in the way of progress and modernity. They also argue that with football being a multibillion-dollar industry, the outcome cannot be left to chance – intimating that this is exactly what unassisted human officiating entails.
The purists must counter by saying that euphoria – football has the power to deliver one of the highest doses of this precious commodity – cannot be left in the hands of machines.
SEEING RED Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben gestures as referee Viktor Kassai shows a contentious red card to team-mate Arturo Vidal during their Champions League quarterfinal loss to Real Madrid