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Why soccer needs better referees, not more technology

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Over the last few years, technology and Artificial Intelligence made serious advances in the world, including soccer and sport. Each month, articles and speculation arise regarding robots removing people from everyday jobs in the coming years.

Consequently, that trend leaks into the beautiful game. First, goal-line technology established itself in the sport around the world. Since then, Video Assistant Referee, or VAR, entered the fray for major competitions across the globe.

Recently, FIFA announced the debut of ‘semi-automated’ offside coming to the World Cup in Qatar. It is the first use of the technology in the sport, coming on the biggest stage possible. So, it appears robots enter mainstream use earlier than anticipated. FIFA expresses that these changes come to make the game better. Yet, does technology actually make the sport a better spectacle?

Technology’s growth in soccer

Now, there are some arguments that goal-line technology has had a positive impact. It measures something definite or binary. Simply put, the ball is completely across the line, or it is not.  On the other hand, VAR adds another layer of scrutiny to a refereeing decision. In doing so, the technology in soccer is still subjective in this regard. The determining opinion comes from the man in the middle or the VAR booth.

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, FIFA introduced the semi-automated offside to the Club World Cup and the Arab Cup. On both occasions, FIFA claimed the technology worked well.

For the uninitiated, the new system combines a sensor inside the ball to measure when a pass is played. That sensor sends a signal 500 times per second, so a kick isn’t missed. Then, 12 multi-tracking and synchronizes cameras can alert the referee to an offside decision. It makes it binary. Well, the words of arguably the best referee of the past 30 years, Pierluigi Collina, who backs the new technology in soccer, suggested some shade. “Technology works most of the time,” he said.

Most of the time*

Implementing this allows the VAR officials to come to a conclusion quicker. They no longer rewind the video of the forward pass to suspect an offside decision. Yet, soccer fans rely on technology that works ‘most’ of the time. What happens if it fails in the World Cup Final? Who is to blame then? These are constantly moving aspects of the game. The ball, the passer, the pass recipient and the defense.

With goal-line technology, it’s a moving ball and a static goalpost. It’s far easier to monitor and determine an outcome. It is churlish to suggest the technology is not advanced enough to deal with the multiple facets involved in offside decisions. Still, the computational brains behind VAR do not often help when the person interpreting the imagery still get it wrong.

Leeds United had a goal disallowed for offside when the VAR officials made a questionable decision. Patrick Bamford, whose body, head and legs were all onside, pointed where he wanted the ball played. His hand extended beyond the last defender, and VAR ruled the play offside. Could he score with his hand? No. Does a pointing motion give him an added advantage regarding his ability to run? No. It was ridiculous.

In the same season, Fulham suffered a loss at the hands of Spurs. A handball decision against Mario Lemina‘s arm took away a potential crucial point. Lemina’s arm rested by his side, and it was clear that it was not a handball. That one point could have proved pivotal in Fulham’s bid for survival, which came up short.

The classic game

The debate around refereeing decisions has one which the fans love to get involved with. But, it is something done over a beer before or after a game. The top referees earn that designation because they excel at their job. Collina serves as the perfect example. He garnered respect because he got things right to go with his fearsome The Hills have Eyes look!? He didn’t get there by metrics, or the ability to interpret a badly drawn line on a video screen.

Soccer is not something requiring perfection and cleanliness. Technology is not the key to overhaul the sport. It can complement the game, but there are far too many ways in which tech will turn soccer into a more monotonous, almost predictable, and arguably dull sport. And before we know it, will that then signal the point when the T3000 will replace footballers on the pitch too? No, thank you.

PHOTO: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Jorge

    July 6, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    I am in favor of minimizing the use of technology in our favorite sport. Instead, referees should get better training and it should be reinforced in them how important their calls are to determine the outcome of a game. Those who continue making questionable calls, should be terminated.

  2. Yespage

    July 6, 2022 at 8:49 am

    As long as people are involved, there will be errors. VAR hasn’t been perfect, though I think it improved this last season. The offside calls are rough, because usually it is to negate a crucial goal, and it is cruel to lose a goal over a thickness of a hair. But rules are rules.

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