Video replay in football? Could it work and what would it change?

11th February 2017, Arsenal are hosting Hull in the Premier League and have just taken the lead in controversial circumstances. The ball struck Sanchez’s hand as it crossed the line, and Clattenburg, the referee that day, missed it. Whether the incident was legal or illegal, the referee and his assistants missed the handball.

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Reports quoted in the Telegraph amongst other media have surfaced that Clattenburg apologised to the Hull players after the incident. This is ridiculous, not that he missed the incident, but that the referee is the last person to be able to see his mistake and is powerless to rectify it.

Football at the highest level commands the attention of millions of viewers and billions of pounds. The margin between winning and losing are minute, and these margins result in the either gaining or missing out on millions of dollars. Leicester City, the defending champions have just sacked their manager for fear of relegation and missing out on a £100 million payday. With the stakes so high, why do we allow for the human error of referees?

Arguments against video replays in football follow a regurgitated template devoid of real thought. Video officials will take away the authority of the referees, video replays will ruin the pace of the game, video replays will remove debate from football. Let’s deal with that last point first. Debating will always be a part of football. Football is debated the world over along tactical, personnel and stylistic lines. Throughout the rich history of Association Football debate has raged be in it the public schools and later the pubs of England, the coffee houses of Vienna or the playgrounds and classrooms of schools the world over. The debate will be as rich as it ever was, without errors from referees.

The first point often raised revolves around the authority of the referees to make the final decision. The referee in the premier league has 2 assistants plus a 4th official. In continental and international competition this number raises to 4 assistants plus the 4th official. The officiating team is somewhere between 4 and 6 men, what would it hurt to add one more official to get the decisions correct? The referee’s authority would not be diminished by giving him another tool with which to make the correct call.

A referee is in constant communication with his team throughout the 90 minutes, ensuring they get it right. The addition of one more individual to the team would change nothing, aside from the team’s accuracy. The referee would still be in charge of the game, he would ask for a video replay, and he would word the question for the video official. The wording of video replay assistance is extremely important as this defines what is being looked for by the video official. It is imperative that the referee, the most experienced and qualified member of his crew, be the one to ask the question.

The final point raised was regarding the pace of the game. Football is a fast paced sport, where transitional play is the most important phase of games. The time between an opportunity at one end of the field and an opportunity at the other end is one in which games are won and lost. So it stands to reason that stopping play after each marginal decision in a penalty area would destroy this transitional phase whilst the referees decide what the decision should be.

This is the only time an example should be taken from Rugby in terms of video application in football. Rugby handles video officiating as well as any sport, but there are more breakdowns in the game of rugby, however, the transitional phase is just as crucial. If a referee has seen something in the build-up to a try he will allow the play to continue to its conclusion before asking a simple question.

That question is “Is there any reason I cannot award the try?”. At which point the TMO (television match official) will look back over the built up to the try and with the referee determine the validity of the score. The clock off time after the play can be a minute or so, but the decision will be made correctly one way or another. The tension in the air, as fans await the decision, is palpable in the crowd and adds to the experience of live rugby.

Let us look a little closer at the pace of the game, and specifically at the ball in play time. A 2013 article by the statistical website states that in the 2010-11 premier league season 42 fixtures had ball in play time of just 54 minutes. This was the mode, the most common amount of ball in play. This meant that in 42 matches the ball was out of play for 36 minutes, and this was just the mode. The highest ball out figure was 46 minutes – more than a full half of football.

Football is a high tempo sport, in which transition is vital, but one in which the ball is dead a lot of the time. How will this be impacted by video officials? The sports football should take examples from is not rugby, cricket or American football. Field hockey is the answer to football’s video questions.

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Field hockey is an incredibly high paced game, in which the transitional phase is vitally important. Field hockey played at the highest levels is faster paced than football and features video officiating to assist the on-field umpires. How does this work? In the way outlined in the preceding paragraphs. The play is allowed to continue before the video official is used. The umpire words the questions to the TMO carefully and they will take the time to make the correct decision.

Captains also have an opportunity to ask questions of the TMO if they feel a decision has been made incorrectly or missed entirely. Each team is entitled to one referral per match. It is retained if the referral is correct and lost if it is incorrect. If a team waste their referral it is gone. People have spoken of it being abused to take time off the clock. The question should be asked, “why would a manager or a team waste such an important resource, one they very may depend on late in the game?”

Video officiating will take time to make a decision and will not be available at all levels of the game. Lower down the pyramids of domestic football they do not have access to the goal cameras they have in the premier league, nor are there vast sums of money on the table for success and enormous financial costs for failure. The average TMO decision in Field Hockey is roughly 90 seconds (according to an article) and rugby is roughly the same. Whilst this may seem an interminable amount of time, how much time is spent showing endless replays of an incident missed by a referee? How long do wronged players harras and abuse officials after a decision has been made before play resumes?

A final complaint people against video officiating raises is how far does it go? Field hockey provides the model yet again on where and when to use the video officials. Essentially the use of the VU (Video Umpire – hockey’s TMO) is limited to the area 23 yards from either goal and incidents relating to goals. Football could sensibly employ similar limits the video usage, for example inside the final 1/3 of the field and incidents relating to goals. “Are these not arbitrary?” A line needs to be drawn, even if it seems arbitrary as to the limits of video usage, in the same way, that the 18-yard box is 18 yards and a goalkeeper may only handle a ball for 6 seconds.

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Football has problems, with refereeing mistakes and abuse of officials. Video referrals could mitigate both of these problems by allowing players and referees the chance to get the decision correct, without chasing the man in the middle around like a ferocious mob. The pace of the game would not be impacted as play would continue until the conclusion of a play. Football currently loses 30 minutes per game to the ball being dead for various reason, video officiating will not add significantly to this, it may even reduce it.

It turned out that Mark Clattenburg was correct to award Sanchez’s goal against Hull in early February. With the use of video officials that incident would have been cleared up there and then and we wouldn’t have seen multiple complaints and articles written about the incident. It would have allowed debate to be focused on the right areas. The football on the pitch.

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