The FA has taken the first steps to introducing video technology in English football. Video assistant referees will be trialled from next season’s FA Cup third round it’s been announced, with many expecting the Premier League to see use of a similar system soon after. The news has been welcomed by the vast majority of fans and commentators in the game, and while we’re similarly on board, we do think there’s need for caution and, more than anything, logical thinking.

Video Technology in Football: A Word of Caution

Video Technology in Practice

More correct decisions in the game, by logic, can only be a good thing. But more ‘correct’ decision doesn’t necessarily bring less controversy.

Let us explain. Just this weekend there were numerous incidents that if video technology had been used a different decision would have probably been given. The obvious example of the need for the video replays was the penalty awarded to Burnley in the relegation 6-pointer at the Liberty. The ball clearly hit Sam Vokes’ arm instead of a Swansea defender and the opening goal could have cost Swansea some much needed points in their fight against the drop. A video replay would have saved a potential mess.

Then we take a trip to the fiery encounter between Bournemouth and Man Utd at Old Trafford. We can probably all just about agree that Zlatan Ibrahimović would have been sent off with the technology for a pin-point elbow on Tyrone Mings. But what if the technology had been used to look an incident where the latter’s studs made contact with the former’s skull just moments before the elbow? Depending on who you support, it was an obvious assault as well as clearly being accidental.

The use of technology would have forced officials into a decision and whatever the decision reached, controversy would still surround it with nobody truly knowing whether it was accidental or deliberate. Match of the Day proved as much last night with two of the three ex-pros thinking it was the former, while one of the analysts – the mad man of the three, in fairness – was convinced of violent conduct.

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The Elimination of Controversy?

Which leads us to our major point of contention when it comes to video technology. The success of goal-line technology, for example, has been that the resulting decision can be given with such clarity and irrefutable evidence, but fouls in football are subjective. So so very subjective. One seasoned fan can give a completely contradicting opinion on an incident to another. Not through bias or tinted-glasses, but simply through opinion.

Put another way, as a fan are you more likely to be angered at the referee missing a decision or more angered that the referee has looked at the decision and still determined there was no foul play?

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What Is a ‘Match-Changing’ Situation?

The main argument against the use of video technology in its entirety from the few who still adopt the position seems to be, ‘fans really love discussing controversy down the pub, so just let it be.’ While football is of course ‘just a game’, the stakes are too high to subscribe to that notion. Whether it’s the emotional investment from supporters, or to be a little more crude, the vast amounts of cash contingent on one single refereeing howler, these things do matter.

It’s pretty clear video technology in English football is now more a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’. Fifa president Gianni Infantino just last week said that they aim to use video assistant referees at the World Cup in Russia next year, and that the technology will also be used at this June’s Confederations Cup and May’s Under-20 World Cup. The issue is video assistant referees will review ‘match-changing’ situations.

But who defines ‘match-changing’? And what are they? Clearly a potential offside leading to a goal is result-altering, as is a clear tap of a defender’s heels leading to a one-on-one. What about an innocuous challenge in the middle of the park which could lead to a second booking? Or a perceived ‘dive’ 2 yards outside of the area which leads to a direct free-kick 20 yards from the centre of goal? These are both potentially ‘match-changing’ decisions, especially in a tight game of fine margins.

The Rugby Delusion

Rugby is often used as the bastion of video technology’s successful integration into sport here in the UK, and it does undoubtedly work well the majority of the time. The difference in the nature of the two games is key, however. Most specifically, rugby is a contact sport. We can get into the semantics of the phrase but football is not a ‘contact sport’ in the same sense. By any stretch. Contact is a part of the game, yes, but ‘excess force’ is a term used for a very specific reason; it’s subjective and can be interpreted accordingly.

The nature of rugby also means that changes in possession, while they do of course occur, are not as regular as in football. What will be the protocol if a penalty is denied for Team A, the ball gets hoofed down field and Team B scores 7 seconds later? Does Team A demand a video replay claiming they stopped playing waiting for said replay? What if the replay comes and it’s not a penalty? Is the goal given? Of course, this is an example which would rarely – if ever – happen. But it illustrates the problem; who decides when technology is used and how quickly will a decision be made?

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The Use of Challenges

Which is why we think the only way technology in football can be used effectively and with the least amount of controversy is with a challenge-type system, most notably seen in the NFL and in tennis.

Despite what critics say, decisions can be made relatively quickly – within a couple of minutes – and the game can be stopped without frustration for that amount of time. Most importantly, the onus is put onto managers and players to determine how important a potential decision is. No redefining the narrative through hindsight, only yourself to blame.

Whatever happens with the inevitably arrival of video technology in football, the process needs to be as quick and clean as possible. But even the most ardent video technology campaigner couldn’t argue controversy would be eliminated by its introduction. Ironic given we’re only having the debate because of the stuff.

Are you all for video technology in football? Join the debate over on Twitter!

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