Refereeing must adapt to tech to keep football relevant

One of the most confounding questions this funny old world has ever given birth to is why those reluctant to equip referees with assistive technology forgive poor decisions with the old adage that referees are “only human.”

Most referees are unmistakably human yet it seems bizarre to use such a feeble excuse in an attempt to block the evolution of the game. Being human isn’t a limitation. It’s a strength.

For millions of years mankind has been changing and improving. A human being confronted with a weakness will almost certainly attempt to adapt, whether that be through biological mutations or the use of tools to give an advantage over his or her competitor.

No matter how hard we try we can’t engineer a mutant referee with bionic legs, six eyes and a knack for psychokinesis. If football is to adjust, to improve, the adoption of technology is imperative.

Perhaps even 50 years ago it would have been at least understandable, if still fundamentally unacceptable, that a referee made a mistake. Now, Frank Lampard’s ‘goal that should have been’ at the 2010 World Cup has been embedded into many a person’s heart with the choking anguish lost opportunities inevitably bring.

In an era where football is a multi-billion pound business funding hundreds of thousands of jobs complete fairness is not an ideal to strive towards, it’s a fundamental imperative.

Many fear the introduction of technology will lead to that familiar figure in black running about the pitch like they’re afraid of their own shadow being abandoned. Let’s be clear; we’re talking about amelioration, not eradication.

The stakes are too high to stand in the way of change. Referees do a difficult job made all the more difficult for want of additional assistance. Every time an undeserved penalty is given as the result of simulation it is as much the FA’s fault as it is the referees. Every time a rightful card remains unbrandished or a free kick goes unawarded players, fans, coaching and medical staff are let down. This must stop. The referees making the decisions are “only human” now but they simply don’t have to be.

Some use rugby, football’s technologically advanced cousin, to argue that assistive technology would impede the natural flow of the game and detrimentally affect player’s performances. Such people also seem to be collectively blind to the level of respect referees garner in rugby. Time would be saved rather than wasted by allowing referees technological assistance because players wouldn’t pressure the referee with their desperate wrangling.

Technology would prevent certain Portuguese managers whining about “campaigns” against clubs. Players would feel less of a desire to attempt to sway referee’s decisions. There would be less pressure placed on referees leading to better performances. Technology could, in itself, improve collective refereeing skills, thus rendering it less integral, and perhaps less controversial.

When the Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened in 1825, people were terrified of the first public steam locomotive railway. The population simply couldn’t understand how the human body could stand moving at speeds of up to 30mph without being torn limb from limb in what was bound to be a messy and highly regrettable gamble. It only took one person to prove that being dismembered wasn’t the inevitable effect of rail travel before the population wholeheartedly embraced locomotion.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the 2014 World Cup. Once traditionalists had gotten their head around a magic dissolving spray curtailing the meandering of defensive walls, suddenly the line beyond which any changes would automatically kill the magic of the game was pushed a little further back.

Referees, for now, are only human. However, far from an admission of weakness this is an illustration of the ability to adapt, change and ameliorate with the help of technology. Everyone knows that humans are fallible – we should embrace this. Ultimately, such imperfection is accompanied for most by an eagerness to improve.

Photograph: Ingy The Wingy (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

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