Why video refereeing should be the last resort

Why video refereeing should be the last resort

It is increasingly difficult to remember a weekend of Premier League football that wasn’t marred by refereeing controversy. Far from a rarity, these moments of footballing injustice are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Whether it’s the result of deteriorating standards in officiating, or that simply we are becoming more aware of it, something clearly needs to change.

Yesterday was symptomatic of a worrying trend, with Tottenham this time on the wrong end of one of the mort bizarre offside decisions you’re ever likely to see. Jan Vertonghen was adjudged to have been in an offside position despite being 5 yards inside his own half when the ball was played. What is perhaps more worrying is that the linesman apparently made his decision based on the fact only one Sunderland player was in a covering position, completely irrelevant given Vertonghen’s starting position. Not only did the officials get the decision wrong, it would appear that they fundamentally misunderstood the offside law as well.

Cue mass hysteria and outrage on social media, the now regular response to these transgressions:

Video refereeing and reviews appears to be the popular answer to the problem, and it is difficult to contest that it wouldn’t in someway improve the accuracy with which decisions are made. That said, it continues to ignore the fundamental issue we have in the Premier League, and that is the standard of the referees themselves.

The apologists would argue that referees are simply human beings, prone to error and trying their best to do their jobs. Granted we should perhaps be sympathetic, but there still needs to be a degree of accountability for officials, who are in the end paid professionals in one of the most ruthlessly competitive industries in the world.

If we want to improve the standards we need referees that are monitored and assessed based on their performances, rather than the current system that seems to indulge negligence. Technology would only pander to referees further, allowing them to defer their responsibilities rather than to show the decisive characteristics that we both expect and deserve.

FA Chairman Greg Dyke admitted back in August that we needed to be open to change, and that footballing conservatism was something that would likely hold us back:

“With broadcast advances there may well be a time when we can get information to officials without any negative impact on the fans – whether watching on in the stands or sitting at home on the sofa.” 

“We all know that lively post-match debate is essential. Was it offside? Was it a penalty? But perhaps new technology would allow analysis and conversation among amateurs and experts alike to instead focus on the magic moments, the great goals and the perfect performances?” 

“The referees will always be integral to all of this – controlling the flow, making the big calls and representing their countries to distinction. As the proud nation whereby the Laws of the game were first codified, we know too well that without them we would not have football.”

Dyke is right to err on the side of caution; we need to enact change without profoundly affecting some of the most important aspects of our game. Whether we care to admit it or not, post-match debate and controversy is central to our sport, and to completely rid the game of human error would be to sterilise our sport detrimentally.

What is also important is this notion of flow, something that makes football stand above other sports that are subject to constant stoppages in play. There are few sports where momentum carries such importance, and to incorporate a system of challenges would only mean damaging this. Regardless of how quick the decision can be made, we only need to look at Rugby and Cricket to realise how easy it is for referees to excessively pore over footage until they are adamant they have got the decision absolutely correct.

Technology just gives officials an easy way out, if anything they need to be made more culpable.

What really ought to happen is for referees to be formally assessed game-by-game, scored and ranked throughout the season and eventually promoted and relegated based on this. Rather than being able to hide behind technology, referees and linesmen would actually be pushed to the very best of their abilities, and if this isn’t in line with standards replaced by someone who can actually do the job better.

Once we’ve got the very most out of the officials we have, we can then have a sensible debate about technology. But why consider such a radical last resort when we are yet to get the very best out of the current system?