Whilst this may seem like a grand and dramatic title it is certainly at the crux of what I would like to say about the state of the game. In the context of recent events, surrounding Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and referee Mark Clattenburg, this has become more poignant than I initially anticipated. This refers to, just in case you have missed it, an off the ball incident where Rooney appeared to run across the path of Wigan’s James McCarthy. As McCarthy was blocking Rooney’s path to the ball it appeared that Rooney struck McCarthy with an elbow, which of course would mean that the referee would have no alternative but to issue a red card for violent conduct. The problem arises as this was an off the ball incident where the referee, Clattenburg, was following the ball so could not provide certain decision. Clattenburg gave a free-kick having seen the incident, but unsure of what exactly had occurred. The problem with this incident, as with so many, is that in the age of Sky Sports multiple camera angles provide viewers at home and the pundits in the studio with a better view than that of the referee. Certainly this has proved to be the case with Manchester United’s game against Liverpool, where even the most ardent of Liverpool fan could not stand by and argue that Jamie Carragher, of Liverpool, did not deserve to be sent off for his X-rated challenge on United’s Nani. The multiple cameras available at games allow everyone, by this I mean everyone from the managers right through to the fan watching at home in their living room, bar the man making the decisions with access to any amount of views they may wish to come to their decision. If these cases are such a problem why has there been no change to the refereeing format or rules of the game?
It would appear that there is a want for change, superficially at least, and that the people in the game have the desire and the will for change and to modernise to move away from this situation. First it is important to outline what is meant by change in this context. The clamour for change is a weekly ramble, dependant on who has played who and the outcomes of these games, most recently Manchester United and Wigan, and the latter V Liverpool, change we are led to believe is the need for the game to modernise, the inclusion of video technology to support referees in the ability to make what are often described as key decisions. This, it is said by many with a greater knowledge of participation in football than I, would help to clean up the game and eradicate the weekly discussions about diving, high tackles and flying elbows that are supposedly rife throughout the game. The problem with this that is always raised is time, that using video replays to help referees come to a decision would take too much time out of the game and have a detrimental effect on the flow of the sport. If this is the case what can be suggested to support the decisions? If we are to consider ways to modernise the game we also have to consider the difference between incidents that have a direct affect on the outcome of a game, ball going over the line and the referee not seeing it and a dive the wins that team a penalty for example. These issues then need to be separated into two distinct issues, separating those that indirectly affect the outcome of a game, high tackles and violent conduct, and those that directly affect the outcome of a game, such as diving and missed goals.
Retrospective punishments are one candidate that is often cited. The FA in England is hesitant to introducing this, even though the Italian FA, and UEFA to a lesser extent, have been happy to try and implement some kind of retrospective action on occasion. This has not been the rule, more the exception in these cases. To understand how this would work in practise we need to look at how this kind of action is implemented in another sport, for that we need to look at Rugby League (cue the groans from those of you who know me!). The RFL implements a system by which referees can put particular incidents, and the individuals involved, on report allowing the opposition the chance to make an interchange to replace a potentially injured player. This then allows the match review panel, a committee made up of a chair and three other members who are usually chosen due to their knowledge and experience in the game of rugby league, to review incidents of this nature, after going through all of the video available from every game in Super League to see if any other incidents have occurred that the referees has missed, and then rule on what the final decision regarding the player should be. This is a system that could be easily implemented in English football, with the decisions made by the newly formed match review panel able to suspend and punish players to the full extent of their remit.
The second issue surrounds issues that directly affect the outcome of the game, for example diving to win a penalty and a ball crossing the line that the referee cannot be clear the a goal has been scored. As I said earlier the main problem officials see with this is the time that it takes out of a game. The current UEFA initiative to included an extra official that stands to the right hand side of the defending goalpost only, being used in the Champions League and the Europa League, does help referees to an extent, but only introduces a new dimension of human error. This brings us back to using video technology. How much time would it really take out of games? For a game where the amount of time the ball spends in play is practically nominal in relation to length of a match this seems like a very trite and unnecessary barometer for rejection of replays to assist referees. If we reject this as an issue and accept replays as part of the game what would this look like? I would imagine it would exist in a very similar vein to rugby league’s video refereeing cricket’s DRS systems, modified of course to suit the purpose the football referee needs. There would of course be opposition but imagine the theatre this would create. Big screens in every ground, fans at ends like The Kop and Stretford End waiting tentatively for the outcome of the decision, it may even help some of the fans to grasp the rules of the game. This would be a simple modification to the rules and would not only enhance the game but allow the referee time, and an extra set of eyes, to come to the correct decision.
Despite all of these, in this writer’s eyes, very practical and extremely logical ideas there are several reasons why none of these ideas would ever be implemented or even be discussed at a higher level. Firstly there is an arrogant, and extremely misguided, air surrounding administrators and politicians in football, often to the extent that they don’t see, or don’t want to see, the problems as long as license fees and sponsorship money continue to roll in. The administrators in control of football are now slaves to television revenue, which has, in this writers opinion, created an if it isn’t broke don’t fix it attitude that is perpetuating the issues surrounding refereeing of games. These incidents in football also dominate the headlines and provide a massive percentage of football’s media coverage; if controversial incidents were to disappear it would cause the majority of outlets to have to focus on the standard of the football being played. This would be disastrous as more often than not the standard of football is low, providing little or no entertainment aside from the disputed decisions in a game. This may seem overly critical but how often have you sat on the sofa at home wondering why a pundit is talking up a very dull, mediocre game? This situation is, of course, a double edged sword, as the people that are more likely to constrain football to its current situation are the same ones that may be reporting the incidents and calling for the change in the first place and talking up the mediocre games for the sake of the product they are selling, putting UEFA and FA politicians in an extremely delicate and difficult situation.
Football does have the capacity for change, and there are enough innovative ideas that would help it along the way, but in it’s current malaise it will take a brave delegate to suggest change.