Football is lucky its rulers have been so conservative over video assistance for referees. However frustrating it may be, we – unlike the fans of cricket or the rugby codes – still have only naked-eye decisions when there is no need. At least our game has the chance to learn from the procedural errors made by others, most recently demonstrated by an otherwise excellent Rugby World Cup.
The great fault among sporting administrators these days is over-complication. Perhaps it is because they are used to dealing with lawyers in an increasingly litigious age; I don’t know. But there are so many rules, regulations and bits of often useless advice about everything, refereeing included, that the minds of officials become even more cluttered than should happen even in a hectic phase of play.
A good example was the offside given against Scotland when they were on the brink of victory over Australia. Craig Joubert appeared to get it wrong, or at least replays shown to the viewers at home formed that firm consensus, but the referee felt unable to consult with the TMO in the stadium because regulations stated it should be used only in certain defined situations, of which this was not one.
It was infuriating. Almost as much so as the almost interminable pauses that had taken place earlier in the competition, as officials struggled to decide right and wrong amid tangles of bodies with the whole crowd sharing their every thought-process.
That’s one key to it. Refereeing should be for referees alone. Another vital aspect that football must make non-negotiable, if ever we get a FIFA regime more friendly to video assistance than that of Sepp Blatter – or that of Michel Platini if events had not appeared to spoil the Frenchman’s chance of taking over – is that of time. The game should be more held up than it is for consultation with linesmen now. Its flow is its strength.
What I have always believed is simple: when football began there was a balance between the match official and spectator in that each had only the naked eye; the balance was upset when football became widely broadcast and analysed by television but only the spectator, now the viewer, got the benefit of it; so the balance should be restored.
How it should be done is to impose the minimum of regulation. Then there will be less to go wrong. Simply relieve the fourth official of his number-board and manager-placating duties and take him somewhere quiet where he can watch television and advise the referee, by earpiece, whenever one or other of them deems it necessary. They are, after all, equally qualified referees, even if the man in the middle should always have the final say.
This would keep refereeing pure and traditional. The idea of managers or captains having a certain number of appeals, a version of what happens in tennis, if often mooted but would be disastrous in that it would open the way to managers using the refereeing process tactically; they can be cynical enough without the laws providing an extra avenue for gamesmanship.
There is another silly thing I keep hearing from the other side of the argument. It is that match-official errors of the sort television would spot make the game more dramatic. Take the Hand of God goal, we are told – was it not an ‘iconic moment?’ Perhaps. But would Pedro Mendes’s lob for Tottenham at Manchester United in 2005 not have been immortal too, if only the poor linesman had caught up with it.
Video review would have legitimised that sensational goal by Mendes. And confounded Thierry Henry in Paris. And given Frank Lampard what he deserved in Bloemfontein, turning a one-sided match into a potential classic. It’s what they call a no-brainer.