With the widespread implementation of goal-line technology and early experimentation with video replay ongoing, it is clear that technology in soccer officiating is here to stay. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.
Take, for instance, last week’s AZ Alkmaar-Cambuur KNVB Cup semifinal. It was a Dutch match that saw a would-be game-winner nullified (probably rightly) by video replay, yet in the process demonstrated some of what the sport stands to lose in the quixotic quest for certainty.
This season the KNVB Cup, the Netherlands’ domestic cup competition, became the first high-level soccer tournament to use video review. What began as an experiment during a couple early round cup matches was made a permanent fixture in the competition, and has already been used a couple times this season.
It works like this: During every KNVB Cup match, there is a dedicated video referee equipped with a number of screens to monitor the game. The video referee helps the head referee rule on certain close calls—for instance, whether a penalty should or should not have been given, whether a particular foul was deserving of a yellow or red card, whether a given goal should’ve been ruled out for a missed offside or foul, etc.—by communicating through a headset whenever the video ref has seen a passage of play that he thinks is worthy of further video scrutiny. At these points, the referee halts play, consults with the video ref by looking at various replays and angles of the incident, and then makes a final determination. By all reports these reviews don’t take much time.
As a general matter and in theory, this is good. If we have technology to help refs make the right call without unduly obstructing the flow of the game—the open nature of soccer being one of its critical aesthetic values—then by all means, doing so is right and good. The issue, as we’ve seen in the replay-obsessed American sports culture, is when the strident prioritization of total accuracy in the inherently ambiguous field of play begins to eat away at the game’s enjoyment.
Here’s video of AZ’s disallowed goal from Thursday’s match, which demonstrates some of the potential problems with video replay:
Deep into the final minute of stoppage time, AZ broke quickly down the left flank and hung up a cross into the center of the box. AZ forward Levi García and Cambuur’s keeper collided while challenging for the cross. The keeper couldn’t catch it and García couldn’t head it on goal, so the ball continued bounding along until another AZ player picked it up on the right wing. From there, the man with the ball took a touch, looked up at his teammates in the box, and swung in another cross. This one found its target and was headed into the net. Cue the wild celebrations of AZ’s players and fans.
Right after the ball went in and as the AZ players were piling on top of each other in euphoria, the commentator noticed that the head referee was in communication with the video ref. The video ref looked at the play and noticed that García used his arms to push off on the keeper during the challenge for the cross that preceded the cross that set up the goal. The video ref determined that that should’ve been called a foul on the keeper, and so the head ref disallowed the goal. In just about a minute, the score went from 1-0 back to 0-0. The match then went to extra time, and when no one could score there AZ went on to win in the penalty shootout.
On its face, this is just about exactly what you want from video replay. During the pivotal moment of a knockout match, the referee didn’t spot a foul that, had he whistled, would’ve killed the play that ended in an apparently unjust goal, and video review saved the day. But the flaws in the system are also right there to be seen even here.
For one, is the challenge on the keeper really a foul? García had the right to jump for the cross, and is allowed to put up his arms to protect himself. The fact that García extended his arms and used his hands to push off the keeper means the foul call is probably technically right, but it’s also true that those sorts of challenges happen all the time, sometimes being called and other times not. What constitutes a foul on a challenge like that varies from league to league, ref to ref, and even from moment to moment in the same match. For instance, any reviewed goal from a corner kick could be disallowed by the same logic AZ’s goal was, since both teams’ players grabbing and shoving and tugging one another in the box is a feature of every single set piece and rarely gets called.
With referees making calls using one criteria in real time, then judging critical plays using a completely different rubric on replay, they run the risk of collapsing one of the most important tenets of officiating: that it should be consistent. You can see the same problem in the NBA. For the vast majority of the game, close out-of-bounds calls are made one way, which focuses mostly on which player caused the ball to go out of bounds rather than who actually touched it last. Then, when these plays come under video review at the end of games, refs are forced to make pedantically correct calls on whose finger last grazed a ball before it went out of bounds. Thus a call will be made on a play in direct opposition to how the exact same play would’ve been called had it happened a minute earlier. A similar thing happens in soccer already when, for instance, a fairly light but noticeable challenge will be deemed a foul when it happens near the halfway line, but the same challenge wouldn’t be penalized had it happened in the penalty area.
So what happens when a referee sees one borderline tackle in the box and uses the “fouls in the box must be more obvious than fouls outside the area” principle live, then looks at the replay and sees the same contact but now realizes that it certainly would’ve been a foul elsewhere, but maybe wasn’t heavy enough to award a penalty for? What’s the standard to use here, and will it be consistent?
Even more concerning is the timing of the offending push in the KNVB Cup semifinal. That collision didn’t happen during the action immediately preceding the attempt on goal itself, nor even during the pass that assisted the disallowed goal. This raises the question about how far back can or should referees look when reviewing these kinds of calls. Let’s say the change of possession that led to the initial AZ break involved an AZ player barging into an opponent and jarring the ball loose in that way. Could the eventual goal have been ruled out on those grounds? And even that leads back to the prior question: When is the kind of routine challenge that could (and maybe should) have been called a foul retroactively ruled by the referees one worthy of disqualifying a goal on replay?
That’s not all. Video replay can disallow goals that are given—can it give goals that were wrongly ruled out in live time? Imagine a scenario where an attacker is wrongly flagged offside just before he’d been played one-on-one with the goalkeeper. If the video referee invalidates an assistant’s offside call, can a goal be given if the attacker hit the ball first time and beat the keeper? What about if he first-timed a pass to another onrushing attacker who then scored with his first touch? What if the keeper had been looking at the assistant, noticed the flag go up, and thus gave up on defending the goal? And if video replay can only disallow goals, is it fair to disadvantage attacking teams like that?
The most crucial concern with these kind of video replay reversals, however, is how they threaten to permanently alter the way the game is perceived. To see the ball hit the back of the net,watch the players celebrate this moment, react to it ourselves as fans and spectators, and later have that play nullified is dangerous.
This is what has happened with the NFL. With the addition of ambiguous, inconsistent, omnipresent replay, you can find yourself watching a running back wheel out of the backfield on a short passing route, catch a ball the quarterback flips out to him, juke a linebacker out of his jock, run over another would-be tackler, sprint down the sideline toward the end zone, and dive for the goal line as a chasing cornerback leaps at him for a potentially touchdown-saving tackle, and not react to the amazing feat of athleticism you’ve just seen. Over time, you’ve learned to wait until the referees on the field and in the replay booth convene to decide whether that unbelievable play has been confirmed, will stand, or has been overruled.
Because of this replay-born interaction, the enjoyment of the sport becomes mediated not through the actions on the field themselves, but through the referees affirming or nullifying the actions at some later time using a nebulous system of rules you don’t understand and can’t predict. It both delays and decreases the excitement of the actual plays themselves. After all, why celebrate something you just saw when you might later learn that it actually didn’t happen at all? We already have Schrödinger’s touchdowns. We don’t need those kinds of goals, too.
To be clear, none of this replay skepticism is necessarily about glorifying the fallible “human element” in sports, or claiming that controversy borne of obviously wrong refereeing decisions is actually good. Soccer would be better than it is now if all games were officiated consistently and with total accuracy, and it’s dumb to argue otherwise.
Since perfect accuracy is not possible, though, there are other, higher ideals of the game that should be prioritized, such as fluidity and immediacy and finality. This is why goal-line technology is so great: It is free of ambiguity, it solves a clear problem that’s exceedingly difficult to remedy through natural methods, and it renders an accurate ruling immediately.
Video replay of the sort practiced in the AZ game is different. It doesn’t eliminate human error so much as it adds a new, temporally-removed human error that as much as it fixes certain aspects necessarily erodes some extremely valuable facets of the game that make soccer what it is. What soccer should strive for is more, better referees, and more technology that can make decisive, consistent, correct calls immediately. Goal-line technology fits this. You could imagine a system where initial offside calls go from being made by assistant refs on the sideline to referees using video fitting this, too. Pausing the action so that referees can subjectively re-litigate subjective calls doesn’t.
Maybe there’s a pithy way to state the principle here, a kind of corollary to the “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” axiom: If you can’t fix it, don’t change it. Change made in the name of misguided improvement can easily wind up ruining the very thing it was designed to make better.