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.