Football and Video Replay II

After the blunder by the referees in the England vs Germany match, there have been more calls for video replay. The amazing error occurred when the referee disallowed what was clearly a goal by Frank Lampard against Germany. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced well across the goal line before German keeper Neuer snagged it on the rebound and continued the play. Neither the linesman nor the Uruguayan referee saw the goal.

News stories have made the comparison to another contentious moment in the 1966 World Cup when England played Germany in the final. A similar kick from England’s Geoffrey Hurst struck the bar and landed on the line. Hurst was awarded the goal, even though no goal had been scored, and England won.

After this last blunder, once again there have been calls for the use of video technology, including from England coach Fabio Capello.

FIFA has been reluctant to introduce technology, and with good reason. FIFA president Sepp Blatter says,

No matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else?

Fans love to debate any given incident in a game. It is part of the human nature of our sport.

Soccer is also a game that at its best is continuous. Interruptions from fouls and throw-ins are minimal, unlike the two or three minute stoppages that video replays would require.

The solution need not be the technology. FIFA is already considering adding two more referees to be placed behind the goals. This seems to be the best solution. The area patrolled by these referees would primarily be the penalty box, where many fouls occur that are missed by the main referee and the lineman who is at best 32 meters away. The goal referee would be positioned at the side of the goal away from the linesman, and he would have been in a perfect position to verify Lampard’s goal or deny Hurst’s “goal”. (He would also have seen the two handballs from Thierry Henry that put France into the World Cup competition in place of Ireland.)

Football Karma

If there is anything like karma in sport, we witnessed it in Group A of the World Cup. France only made it to the competition through cheating in the final qualifying match against Ireland, when Thierry Henry used his left hand twice to guide the ball so he could kick the all important goal. Both the referee and the linesman missed the red card foul.

At the World Cup, the performance of the French team, who were highly fancied, has been embarrassing at best, and the behavior off the field can only be described as shameful. The latest implosion began when one of the star players, Nicolas Anelka, was sent home for an abusive outburst at the manager Raymond Domenech, a man who was not above using astrology to make some of his roster decisions. To support Anelka, the team refused to practice and watched television instead. Domenech had to read a statement from the team to the press. His replacement was announced before the last humiliating game. The players had lost confidence in him, if they ever had much to begin with. After the last match, a 2:1 defeat by lowly South Africa, Domenech refused the customary handshake with South Africa’s Brazilian coach. The French players, who flew to South Africa first class, were sent home on a cheap charter flight.

In the end, many of the French fans were rooting for South Africa and, when France was eliminated, the Irish were celebrating.

Football (Soccer) Divas

When we watch the World Cup matches, we see the country’s best players on display. As a general rule, they are also the best paid players, most of them being multi-millionaires. We may not see it on the field, but off the field there are diva-like demands. Brazil required that the hotel pool be kept at the exact temperature of 90 degrees. The team also wanted a constant supply of hot coffee and no chocolate. North Korea (no millionaires here) demanded a private floor at their hotel. Other countries had their own demands or brought equipment, food, and other amenities from the home country to satisfy the players.

The greatest demands came from Argentina. All rooms had to be painted white. The food requirements included ten hot dishes a day plus fourteen salads, three pasta dishes a meal and three desserts, and ice cream to be available 24 hours a day. And the dapper coach of Argentina, Diego Primadonna, who wears a suit on the sidelines that must have cost more than the average yearly income of an African, demanded that his suite be remodeled with more expensive toilets and bidets installed. The South African Sunday Times reported that Maradona’s 450-dollar bidet features a heated seat, a warm air blow dryer and front and rear bidet wands. Maradona also had two thrones installed! Does this have something to do with the bidet?

Fortunately, the spoiled behavior does not generally translate onto the field of play. One exception is the Diving Diva, Cristiano Ronaldo, the captain of Portugal, who throws himself down at every opportunity in the hope of extracting a free kick from the referee. Any touch on His Elevatedness from an opposing player and down he goes, appealing for a foul. At least twice in Portugal’s opening game did this action result in a free kick against him, showing that the referee wasn’t going to take his histrionics. Let us hope the remaining referees are alert to the antics of the Diving Diva.

Vuvu … What???

What distinguishes South African soccer fans from the rest of the world?

Answer: They are deaf!

The vuvuzelas are those noise-making plastic horns that are being blown at every World Cup soccer match. They are also being blown from dawn to dusk in the streets wherever soccer fans congregate. The noise level of each horn is 130 decibels, which is above the human pain threshold and which causes permanent hearing damage. The players complain about the noise on the field and, above all, the disruption it provides to on-field communication, making it difficult for them to play their regular game.

The noise also affects television viewership. With some games, it is difficult to hear the game being called over the “incessant whining of locusts” or the “buzzing of angry bees.”

Not unexpectedly, there have been many calls for banning them, at least from during the games. Initially, Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, said no because he worried about Europeanizing the competition. In other words, the vuvuzelas were part of the South African cultural identity. Yes, the vuvuzelas did originate in South Africa twenty years ago, based on the traditional antelope horns, and yes, South Africans commonly play them at soccer games, but how can a cheap tube of plastic only twenty years old be considered part of South African heritage?

Now at least the head of the World Cup organizing committee, Danny Jordan, is considering a ban, probably not the least reason being some talk of lawsuits. If there is to be a ban, it should not come until the completion of the first round in fairness to the competition. Let all teams and all games in the round be played under the same conditions. Once the competition moves to the round of 16, the all-important knockout games begin. At that time, it would be appropriate to ban the interfering buzz so that the teams can play to their full potential.

America’s Cup: Fun and Games

It seems to be in the nature of America’s Cup competition that, every now and then, the race for the world’s oldest active sporting trophy becomes nothing less than a farce. The most recent competition, held this last February, was another instance.

The match amounted to three racing days, two races, and two and a half years of legal wrangling. In addition, there was no international competition for the right to challenge, and the race (traditionally a monohull competition) was between two ridiculously large and expensive multihulls.

Despite this, the 2010 challenge was not the most farcical. That “honor” is still held by the 1988 mismatch between a huge New Zealand monohull and Dennis Conner’s 60-foot American catamaran. So ridiculous was the race that Conner held back the speed of the multihull to help the American position in the court case that he knew would follow.

These one against one matches are called “Deed of Gift” matches. More appropriate, I think, would be to call them “Court of Law” matches.

Fortunately, the 2010 campaign was won by the right team, BMW Oracle (racing as USA 17). Larry Ellison of Oracle wants to return the cup to the traditional format of competition between potential challengers to determine the eventual challenging boat and competition between boats from the defending country (currently USA) to determine the defending yacht.

I hope Ellison also returns to monohull competition. We already have a multihull regatta, modeled on America’s Cup, the Little America’s Cup. It was here in the Little America’s Cup that the wing type sail that BMW Oracle sported was first used in competition.

America’s Cup racing is traditionally between monohulls. America, the schooner that started it all, was an innovative monohull design in 1851. The best competition has always been between monohulls of similar design, with room in the rules to allow for innovation.

The heyday of America’s Cup was when the yachts were of the 12-metre class. These were less expensive than earlier yachts and also less than the class that replaced it, the International America’s Cup Class. If Ellison (as he said) wants to get back to a less expensive format with more countries competing, it should be to something similar, though a different class from standard yacht racing classes to provide for development. The 12-metre rule allowed for considerable flexibility in design, through limiting trade-offs, with a lot for room for innovation. (The yachts were not twelve meters in length; competing plus and minus measurements had to total twelve meters.)

It was in a 12-metre yacht in 1983 that Australia II broke the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year-old stranglehold on the cup. Contributing to the win was an innovative keel design on Australia II. Too much has been made of the winged keel. Australia II was the superior yacht and would have most likely won anyway, though they were up against a formidable opponent in Dennis Conner. The kind of innovation that the winged keel represents would not have been accepted under the rules of standard yacht classes. Indeed, the winged keel was promptly banned from other classes.

The move to 12-metre racing turned out to be a very significant move. It eventually opened up the competition for the trophy. It enabled America’s Cup to spread to other countries and potentially become a truly international regatta of the highest order. Now it has a chance to stay that way—as long as we do not end up with any more “Deed of Gift” or “Court of Law” races.

Olympics – an NBC Turn-off

One of the reasons why TV ratings of the Olympic games were low in recent years is because NBC’s coverage was so poor. When NBC first got the summer games, they introduced their “style” and immediately the ratings dropped. When CBS copied some of it for the Nagano winter games, their ratings also fell.  Since then NBC has cornered the winter games as well as the summer, and they brought their “style” to those as well. No surprise when the quality of coverage went down!  Friends in upstate New York watched the Olympics on Canadian TV because the NBC coverage was so bad.

Why? Because NBC focused its style on personalities, not on sport. Instead of action, we had to put up with interviews, personal histories, sob stories, reviews of past efforts, plus old time-wasting film. These seemed to be more important to NBC than the competition itself.

To me, it was just yak, yak, yak! This was especially true during prime time. Yak, yak, yak! Seemingly endless talk is not what Olympic viewers want. Those whom NBC are trying to reach with this approach (I assume they are the non-sports fans) have better fare to watch on other stations, so why waste resources and turn off the viewers they do have?

One of my most persistent memories from an early NBC Olympics broadcast, the 1992 summer games, is long-held close-up shots of swimmers’ armpits at the beginning of a race. Another memory is from the women’s long distance bicycle race before Beijing. NBC was so obsessed with their invented rivalry between an American and a French cyclist that the whole focus of the race was on those two, though neither of them was anywhere near the lead. The broadcast spun this out for a whole afternoon. Suddenly they realized that someone was winning, so they switched to the finish line, but all we got was a half-second flash of green and gold going by – the winner. It was a young Australian athlete that NBC had NOT mentioned at all—through that whole long dreary afternoon! Ironically, because of their obsession, they missed the best story of all.

Unfortunately, the way they handled this year’s opening ceremony is typical of NBC’s disregard for their audience. On the West Coast, the broadcast was advertised, promoted, even hyped to start at 7:30 pm. Why? The ceremony in Vancouver actually began at 6:00 pm. When 7:30 came along, did we get the opening ceremony? No! In true NBC style, since they have done this before, they gave us at least an hour of irrelevant fillers. And they had to include Bryan Williams, who is definitely not the big draw they think he is,  certainly not in sport. Yak, yak, yak! On and on! I say at least an hour because by 8:25, we had enough of the yak, yak, yak, and like many others, we gave up and did not bother with the ceremony. (I had been reading about it online anyway since about 6:00 – coverage by the Toronto Star, amongst others).

Here’s a word for the advertisers on the NBC opening ceremony coverage: You were paying for the yak, yak, yak, not the Olympics. It turned viewers off for the actual ceremony. You definitely did not get your money’s worth!

I have no doubt that NBC is trying to improve its Olympics broadcast because it is definitely getting better. It is not always up to par, but it used to be abysmal.  There is still some way to go, especially in prime time.

Let the Olympics be the show. This is no soap opera, no drama series, no acted-out entertainment. It’s the real thing, on the spot live action reality. Do the professional job. Get rid of the commentators, holding microphones like cub hounds; out in the field it makes sense for a few moments; inside, it is just amateurish. We don’t need to see them anyway.  Get rid of the time-wasting profiles, the focus on shallow personalities, and especially get rid of the old film. Give us what the Olympics are really about: sport, competition, excitement. Don’t give us sob stories or hyped-up emotion. Let the emotions arise from the games, and from calling the action, and from the winners standing on the podium.

Video Replay and Football (Soccer)

The “world’s most beautiful game” took another big hit last week when, in extra time, France captain Thierry Henry used his left hand twice to guide the ball. Both the referee and the linesman missed it. The resulting goal was enough for France to defeat Ireland and qualify for the World Cup 2010. As expected, there was an outcry from the Irish fans, but I think that the incident left a bad taste in the mouth of any true football fan. It is reminiscent of Maradonna’s “hand of God” use of hands that gave Argentina the victory over England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.

The “hand of Henry” has brought France to the lowest level of cheaters, joining Argentina and Italy as countries to be despised and rooted against. (Italy reached the quarterfinals in the 2006 World Cup through a dive by Grosso in the penalty area. He was awarded a penalty instead of a red card, and the Italians got through on the ensuing goal. Video surfaced after the match that showed Italian players practicing just that kind of a phony fall.)

What can one do about these cheaters? Is it time for the use of video technology? The Bleacher Report (November 18, 2009) for one says,

This is yet another example of a crucial goal unfairly given, when video technology would have prevented the injustice from ever happening.

How long will it be before FIFA and Co. finally get their act together and implement video technology in football, to stop blatant mistakes like this happening on a regular basis?

Video technology has entered a number of sports. It is now an integral part of American football. It has also found its way into rugby and cricket, and it is even used in baseball. In the last three sports, the use of replay is strictly limited. In rugby, it is used to determine whether a try has been scored in cases where the referee is unsighted. In cricket, it is used in close run out situations. In baseball, it is used to determine a home run in ambiguous circumstances.

Where video replay is currently used, the resumption of the game has to wait until the play has been reviewed, either by a referee off the field or by the umpires through a replay booth. And delay is the main argument against using video replay in football. Video replay works best in situations where there are appropriate stoppages of play, as in American football. Round ball football has a converse philosophy. The game at its best is continuous. Interruptions from fouls and throw-ins are minimal, unlike the two or three minutes stoppages for video replays.

The only time when video replay might make sense is in the confirmation of a penalty. In the three cheating examples given above, replay would only have picked up on Grosso’s cheat. Maradonna’s happened outside the box, while the referee and linesman saw nothing questionable about Henry’s to warrant a replay.

Video replay, however, could be used after the game, in this way: The referee, in the presence of the linesmen, would review the game. Any illegitimate goal would be negated, provided there is indisputable evidence, such as in the case that Henry was involved in. This kind of ruling could be used in normal league play, where the result of the match is translated into points.

The post-game replay, though, could not be used in matches where a result is required, as in the France-Ireland game. One argument is that France’s tactics changed after the “goal”, playing defensively for the last seventeen minutes. This is not a problem. With post-game replay, France would know that the goal would be negated (after all, the captain Henry knew he used his hands), and so it would not have changed its approach in the remainder of the game, since there was still the need to score a legitimate goal. The problem comes with the next step. If after the overtime, the game still stood at 1:1 on aggregate (as would be the case, if France’s goal were negated), the match would have to be decided on a penalty shootout. Hence, the post-game replay would not work.

I think the solution should be as follows: Ban the offending player from the rest of the competition. In this case, France would still go to South Africa, but not Thierry Henry. Henry could still play for his club, and even for his country, but not in the 2010 World Cup competition. (Of course, if at the time during the game Henry had admitted to the referee that he used his hands, the goal would have been overturned, the game resumed with a free kick and Henry with a yellow card could then be eligible to continue playing in the competition.)

Penalty Shootouts

I think most fans would agree that the use of penalty shootouts is not the most satisfactory way to decide which team wins the match. They are a necessary evil for the situation, where a decision has to be made and overtimes have been exhausted. The kicks put great pressure, not just on the goalkeepers, but also on the players who are expected to make what is a relative easy goal. For the keeper, it is less a matter of skill than making the right guess. As they are now, penalty shootouts are not a real test of competing skills.

Penalties during the game would remain unchanged, but end-of-game shootouts could be improved if the ball were placed outside the box in the penalty arc area. The player could choose where he would place the ball. A kick from there would be less of a “gimme” for the player and less of a guessing game for the goalkeeper. Both players would have to draw on their skills to succeed in either making a goal or preventing a goal from being scored.