PARIS (AP) — Referees, hang in there. Help is surely on its way.
Sooner or later, football will see, must see, that the only way to preserve the authority and reputations of its match officials is to give them real-time access to the same video technology now used to painfully dissect them.
But make no mistake: Embracing more technology will also come at a cost to football’s humanity. That is why this decision, one of the most momentous in football history because it will change the game forever, smoothing out some of its human failings and kinks, needs to be weighed so carefully.
Pros and cons of man vs. machine were evident when Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League on Wednesday.
An assistant with instant replays might have helped Bjorn Kuipers avoid his most grievous and embarrassing mistakes. A video assistant could have radioed that Diego Costa pushed PSG defender Marquinhos to the ground when the Dutch referee had his back turned, which should have seen the bad-tempered Chelsea striker sent off with a second yellow card.
With replays that TV viewers had, Kuipers’ team of officials could also have clearly seen that Costa deserved a penalty when Edinson Cavani clipped his left leg in the PSG box in the first half.
And Kuipers surely wouldn’t have sent off Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 31st minute.
In real time, Ibrahimovic’s lunge at Oscar when both went for the ball looked bad, partly because the Taekwondo-trained PSG striker is so much bigger and taller than Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder. But replays showed there was no malice. A video assistant could have advised Kuipers that a yellow card for Ibrahimovic would have been more appropriate than the straight red he brandished too hastily, making it look as though he caved in part to pressure from nine Chelsea players who surrounded the referee, baying for Ibrahimovic’s scalp.
All of which would have helped shield the officials from the shredding they got in the court of instant public opinion.
“The ref may be useless!” former England striker Gary Lineker tweeted after Cavani tripped Costa. “That was a clear penalty. But technology clears both decisions up. They need help.”
But bad calls are good drama. This match for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals would not have been so engrossing and generated such chatter without them.
In football’s debate on video technology, much of the focus has been on logistics. When would video assistants be used? Simply for decisions involving penalties and red cards? Should team managers get two video challenges per match, as FIFA President Sepp Blatter suggested? Would such interruptions ruin the flow of games? Where will the march of technology stop?
“If you say ‘yes’ to the video in the penalty area, it’s ‘yes’ to video for all the game,” Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general, said last month. “It’s a question of making the biggest decision ever in the way football is played.”
And there is a less tangible psychological side to consider here, too. Injustice, bad calls, can cause people to react in astounding ways. The loss of Ibrahimovic galvanized PSG, which played better without him, its 10 remaining men oozing the energy and determination of 12. Chelsea’s 11 played like nine, making the mistake of thinking their job was done with Ibrahimovic sent to an early shower in their Stamford Bridge stadium in London.
Both teams scored twice, but Paris went through for scoring more goals away from home. That outcome was fair because Paris was the better team. Even Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said so.
“We deserved to be punished,” he said.
Video technology cannot be un-invented. Football cannot indefinitely pretend that it doesn’t exist, allowing the authority of match officials to be eroded week-in, week-out by depriving them of the very tool used to scrutinize them and their decisions.
Yet without technology, football still got the right result, the just result, at Chelsea-PSG. That thought is worth pausing on. Video replays could have avoided some of the refereeing errors. The combination of man and machine might have kept Ibrahimovic on the pitch, awarded a penalty to Chelsea, and sent off Costa.
But the spectacle of men making mistakes and of others rising above them was more human.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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