Don’t let tech kick foot­ball joy into touch

CityPress - - Sport - MONDLI MAKHANYA mondli.makhanya@city­press.co.za

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.

PHOTO: FRAN­CISCO SECO / AP

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

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