We couldn’t let this one pass, even Radio 4’s Any Questions? had something to say. On Tuesday evening I gave a small lecture about the role of technology in Sport, I used Diego Maradonna’s famous Hand of God as a case study; should football utilise technology to assist referees? I hope the students marvelled at my astute sense of timing as the very next day news broke that Thierry Henry, captain of the French National Squad used his hand to help put his side through to the 2010 World Cup finals. Ireland, the team on the receiving end of this sleight of hand have been up in arms, both the Irish Parliament and Football Association called for the game to be played again. Henry’s official line is “I will be honest it was a handball but I’m not the referee” and unsurprisingly, the French Football Federation didn’t join Ireland’s call for a re-match.
I don’t want to regurgitate the musings of the press over the past week, debate whether Henry was right or wrong, or even whether the match should be replayed. As you may have guessed, I’m personally much more interested in the role technology might have in such unsporting situations. Could FIFA utilise a highly accurate scanning laser matrix to determine hand proximity to the ball? Maybe they could sheathe the player’s hands in ball-repellent mitts? No, in terms of technology, all that’s needed is a decent video camera and a few people to operate them at strategic points around the pitch, something which is already present in abundance. The reluctance to use this technology is due to fears of slowing the game down, or removing it from its roots of 22 men and a referee (not forgetting the plethora of match officials, coaches, managers, physios and many thousand spectators). While I can see that it’s important to keep a game such as football flowing, there must be room for video technology when making such a crucial decision. The modern game is worth countless millions, the success of a country or club in a large tournament can have wide reaching economic repercussions, something which has to have more of a sound basis than whether a referee was glancing in the right direction. I believe video refereeing could be worked into the game if the will was truly there, and it might never have to be used to have a profound effect.
I’m fascinated by the fine interplay between the rules, popularity and nature of a sport and the effect on behaviour (and even physicality) of the players. For example Basketball has had many rule changes since its inception in 1891. The ‘shot-clock’ was introduced in 1954, meaning a team had 24 seconds (since altered) to make a shot or lose posession. This rewards attacking behaviour simply because if you don’t attack, you’ll lose the ball anyway. Many subtle changes have been made over the years to try and make the game more dynamic and exciting and its changed the game from slow and defensive into a fast-paced spectacle with massive scorelines.
Then there’s the calculations of risk undertaken by any sports player (a subject covered excellently by Rob Eastaway). A player’s success is not only down to their individual skill but a keen awareness of the most appropriate strategy given the conditions and constraints of the game. The canny player will always adopt a more lucrative strategy especially if the perceived risk is low. Cross country mountain bikers often appear overly cautious at races, not because they haven’t the skills to blast downhill but because letting off the brakes may only gain them a couple of seconds in a several hour event, a single mistake might mean a race ruining puncture or fall, or a season ruining injury.
In football, diving is an institution, penalties for failure are often slight and potential rewards are massive. Many players adopt this tactic but aren’t always successful.
Is it really unexpected that so many of the theatrics occur in or around the penalty area? Referees have begun to crack down on this behaviour, but time invested in dive practise could still be time well spent if the referee isn’t able to scrutinise the details of any supposed contact.
Permitting the use of video evidence in football would go some way to curbing unsportsmanlike behaviour and it may never need to be used, the threat and knowledge of its existence may be enough to deter players. Would Henry have been persuaded to own up to his handball(s) if he’d known that a call to the video referee would have sniffed him out regardless? His reputation would have been saved, Ireland would have had a fair chance at World Cup glory, and Any Questions could have continued to talk about politics.