Last Wednesday evening I was in a JD Wetherspoons pub. I’m not proud of that fact but the beer is cheap and in my home town of Stevenage there aren’t exactly hundreds of options. We had been forced into this particular watering hole by the lack of seats and sweat soaked aroma of every other bar in the vicinity – there was football on.
Our decision not to brave the conditions and watch extra time in Ireland’s World Cup play off against France turned out to be a bad one. As we sat in, an admittedly more spacious, but mainly depressing chain pub something pretty momentous was happening elsewhere. Faces around me suddenly began flicking toward the wordless repetition of Sky Sports News. Phones buzzed. Tony Cascarino gesticulated wildly. I received texts containing mainly the word “unbelievable” (and others far less suitable for print). Within thirty seconds to a minute I realised what the fuss was all about. Across the channel the dreams of eleven Irish men, and the nation supporting them, had been destroyed by Thierry Henry who, doing a passable imitation of Michael Jordan, had flicked the ball back from beyond the reaches of the touchline with his hand before passing to William Gallas to score a late winner.
Cue pandemonium. Legions of ex-professionals queued up to call Henry a cheat, to compare him to Marradona and to claim that he had been tainted. Ireland demanded a replay, the French FA looked around quizzically and said “Moi?” and half of Dublin signed a Facebook petition for Thierry Henry to be tried for war crimes. Regardless of the specific ramifications of Henry’s actions, namely that Ireland had been cheated out of a chance to go to next summer’s World Cup Finals, his handball has drawn attention to a wider issue that has been dogging football for years. Now the dust has settled maybe it is time to talk about video replay technology.
FIFA continue to state that such technology will not be employed in the foreseeable future and they seem to be trying every other initiative in the hope that they will be an adequate replacement. At the recent Under-20 World Championships they trialled the fifth and sixth officials who stood behind the goal to give the referee help with goalline and penalty incidents. Whether they will be fully integrated into the professional game remains to be seen but do recent events not highlight their futility?
Even if a fifth or sixth official had been in place at the Stade de France they would have had to contend with the lightning speed of play and the thicket of bodies between them and the ball. However in a grotty pub, hundred of miles away I was able to see, unequivocally, that Henry had handled the ball within minutes. Why waste time with more officials that can be pilloried and persecuted for getting things wrong when we have a viable option for getting decisions right, every time, at our disposal?
There doesn’t seem to be any commercial barrier to the introduction of video technology: people won’t stop buying tickets or Sky subscriptions just because they know that players will be found out diving or simply cheating (except maybe Didier Drogba’s family). There is, whatever any dewey-eyed, 606-listening traditionalist says, no legitimate concerns over the effect that it will have over the make-up of a game.
Replay technology can be ready and assessed within minutes. It will not mean that matches will go on for five hours or that every single throw-in or goal kick will be studied by a team of CIA analysts to make sure that the decision was right; it will mean that things are fair. To assuage such worries a challenge system could even be introduced, such as that employed in tennis, to stop replays being used irresponsibly. With some common sense measures and a few cameras football can rid itself of cheating and controversy – if those who govern football had moved fast enough Ireland may even have booked their place in the World Cup.