This World Cup, qualifiers included, has thrown up renewed calls for video technology to be utilised for the sake of fairness – the most notable incidents being Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ against Germany, Tevez scoring for Argentina against Mexico whilst clearly offside plus, of course, Thierry Henry’s handball that lead to the goal that put France through at Ireland’s expense. Were we to have had the means to spot and rectify the referees’ errors, the correct decision could have been given, justice would have prevailed and the world would be a safer place. Absolute tommyrot! The day that trial by TV becomes reality is the day that not only is Pandora’s box opened for all the evils of the world to spill out but, if you delve deeper into the box, you’ll find a mass of worms emerging from a recently opened can.
Of the three matches I’ve mentioned, the ‘experts’ have called for video replays of incidents of handball, offside and the ball over the line. Anything else you’d like scrutinising? Throw ins? Shirts not tucked in? Alice band not in team colours perhaps? Behave Lineker, get a grip Shearer – you’re allowing the prize to overshadow the incident. If a goal is allowed to stand from a striker who’s three yards offside during a Macclesfield v Bury night match – in February, in the rain, when it’s already 4-0 – why do we not hear a dicky bird about it? It’s no less important if you’re to believe video evidence would have put it right.
Unlike other sports using technology whilst the match is in progress, eg rugby league, tennis, cricket, football is not a game of natural stoppages. The ball may not go dead for five minutes. A halt in play to re-examine a disputed incident would not, as some commentators believe, be a three-second decision. While the referee is consulting the eye-in-the-sky, players will be taking the opportunity to grab a drink, talk tactics with the manager or get treatment. And if the appeal is proved negative, where and how is play to be re-started? If the controversy is over a shot crossing the line and the replay shows it hadn’t, and the defending team had already started a counter attack towards the opposite end, they are penalised. If a drop ball or free kick is awarded to the defending team, how do you then re-create what should have been had the game not been stopped?
I know of two referees who reached a fair standard on the league ladder but were forced to abandon plans for career advancement when they were told they were being ‘too controversial’
Football is a fast contact sport governed by a simple set of laws, but these laws are seemingly only interpreted by the officials rather than adhered to. So before we turn the beautiful game over to Hawkeye & Cyclops Incorporated, I have a better suggestion – play to the rules. By this I don’t mean a return to the Corinthian spirit of no fouls, waxed moustaches and ‘jolly well played’. I’m talking about referees not being afraid to uphold the clearly set-out laws rather than watering them down so as not to raise eyebrows. Instead we have bottleless men in the middle giving convenient, non-controversial decisions to appease all. How often do we see a corner given, the referee doubting himself after being surrounded by the opposition, then awarding a phantom free kick the moment the ball leaves the taker’s foot to even up the error?
There’s a common phraseology that occurs in the official FIFA rules: ‘If, in the opinion of the referee…’ So, if he truly believes a corner should have been given he should stand by it. I know of two referees who reached a fair standard on the league ladder but were forced to abandon plans for career advancement when they were told they were being ‘too controversial’. They were giving correct decisions of course, but the powers that be deemed this not in keeping with their doctrine of minimising upsets. You see, they're big on appeasement down the Referees’ Association.
How many other sports so blatantly disregard clearly set down guidelines? And how many players, managers, commentators or fans really know them? How many laws of the game do you think there are? Go on, hazard a guess. A hundred? Double that? You may be surprised to learn that there are a mere seventeen laws of association football. Granted that within those laws lay a series of subsections and guidelines, but the fact remains that the game we love is governed by a handful, well, a Pat Jennings handful, of rules.
So let’s get the size 5 rolling. When did you last see a referee award an indirect free kick for a goalkeeper holding the ball for more than six seconds? It’s a rule! See Law 12 – ‘Fouls and Misconduct’. Be exciting wouldn’t it? A free kick in the penalty area provides a pretty good chance of a goal being scored. But consider the controversy this would create. So rather than punish the offender, it gets glossed over and the keeper gets 10 to 15 seconds – in fact, however long they want. And to placate us, the ref – because he knows the rules, you see – may occasionally whistle and tell the keeper to get on with it. So that’s all right.
Here’s another: a player should be sent off for ‘using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures’. Mmm. It’s a grey area, isn’t it? Such a shame that the officials develop temporary hearing problems when told to fuck off.
Try this: Law 5 – Injured Players: ‘A player is not allowed to receive treatment on the field of play’. Ponder that for a moment. ‘A player is not allowed to receive treatment on the field of play’. That’s a fairly straightforward message. And that’s why Shearer, Hansen and Lawrenson get so damned airiated about the ridiculousness of players having to go off (after the treatment they’re not allowed on the pitch) to then immediately return. The referee once again is avoiding contention, so a player is treated, hobbles off and makes a quick entrance to vaguely comply with the correct rule. How I long for one, just one, courageous referee to refuse all pleas for treatment for a fictitious injury and wave play on despite the ball being hoofed out. ‘You want treatment, player, you go off’.
Encroachment at penalties rarely given – controversial. Correct minutes added on for time lost – controversial. Player booked for feinting after running up for a penalty – controversial. Free kick given for stooping to head/chest a ball back to the keeper’s hands that you would normally kick – controversial.
How fantastic would it be to see a newly-appointed referee, given his first match in a Premier League game, adhere completely to the rules, to the astonishment of all concerned? To see him award a throw-in the other way when a player dangles one leg like a stork, to award a free kick to an attacker who's being impeded while a defender ‘shields’ the ball out of play from 20 yards out, to add nine minutes of time at the end of a half for goals, bookings and excessive celebrations – though not for injury time, because players will have had their treatment off the pitch. And when the hullabaloo is over, when the experts have questioned his actions and when the Premier League have given him the boot, the now unemployed official, when asked what the hell he was doing, will reply, ‘Playing to the rules. Look, it’s all in here,’ and produce a copy of The Laws of The Game. And why should there be comebacks? Isn’t there an expression about elephants in living rooms? In this case the elephant is clad in black (or green or blue or red), has a whistle and is a teacher in a West Midlands secondary school, happily married with two kids and enjoys mountain biking.
So before we continue clamouring for some higher being to officiate our kickabouts, let’s get the fundamentals right first. Issue every pub team, amateur side, league club and country with the official laws of the game and tell them, from now on, we’re playing to these, ‘cos rules is rules. It sounds like a winner to me – a late winner that is, in the eighth minute of injury time from the penalty spot. With no encroachment.