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Technology can iron out football’s refereeing flaws

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-03-2017 Deepak Narayanan

Last week, we witnessed one of the great comebacks in the history of football as Neymar—the permanently sulking Brazilian maker of miracles—sparked a completely ridiculous passage of play to take Barcelona past Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and into the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals.

Trailing 0-4 from the first leg, the Spanish giants found themselves 2-5 down on aggregate and needing three goals to go through with 3 minutes and injury time left in the contest. An 87th-minute free kick from Neymar seemed too little too late, a 91st-minute penalty left the Paris side quaking in their boots, and by the time the winner came, in the 93rd minute, there was an air of inevitability about it all.

This was historic: No side had ever overturned a 0-4 first-leg defeat, leave alone score three goals in 6 minutes to turn a tie of this magnitude on its head.

There was one problem, though: Barcelona’s win had been aided by two glaring refereeing errors. First, the penalty awarded in injury time should never have been given, the official falling for Luis Suarez’s clumsy dive in the box. Before that, PSG had vociferous penalty shouts of their own turned down after Javier Mascherano had brought Edinson Cavani down. The Argentinian defender later admitted he had fouled Cavani, and had that decision gone PSG’s way, Barcelona would in all likelihood have been reduced to 10 men.

The comeback was remarkable, no doubt, but it would be fair to say the result could go down in history books with an asterisk next to the scoreline. Such is the anger and frustration among PSG fans that an online petition to replay the game got more than a million signatures in less than 24 hours.

This isn’t a new problem in football. Exponential improvements in the quality of coverage mean the spotlight on officials is harsher than ever. Players don’t make their jobs any easier either, constantly flirting with the thin line between gamesmanship and cheating to buy their team an advantage.

The obvious question is whether technology can be used to get rid of these errors, and it’s a question football has grappled with for a while.

Tennis has successfully adopted ball-tracking technology to ensure bad line-calls don’t affect the result of a game. Cricket’s attempts at seamlessly using technology have been less successful, but despite the fact that the authorities have struggled to agree on exactly how much tech should be used, and how it should be used, there’s no doubt that the number of absolute howlers has come down over the last few years. Football’s adoption of goal-line technology itself has been an unparalleled success.

The big argument against the whole thing is that the introduction of a video referee would completely change the fabric of the game. Goal-line tech is extremely unobtrusive, while a referral system could totally mess with the ebb-and-flow of a match. Imagine a team setting off on a blistering counterattack, only to be called back so a previous infringement can be probed.

While it’s a fair concern, this is not argument enough to stand by and watch as match after match, season after season, is decided by bad (and completely avoidable) refereeing decisions. Watching on television, we know within seconds of an incident whether a right call has been made. There’s no reason this should not be used to the sport’s advantage—whether it’s done by giving players the option to challenge decisions, or giving the referees time to confirm doubts with a colleague in front of a monitor.

Supporters of the status quo often say that these calls even out over the course of a season…that you win some and lose some. Try telling that to a PSG player right now.

Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.

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