POSTED: March 21st 2018

JOHN GOODBODY: Russian 2018 FIFA World Cup this summer will be a test of technology in football

Fisht Stadium in Sochi was home to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2014 Olympics © Getty Images
Fisht Stadium in Sochi was home to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2014 Olympics © Getty Images

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) The use of technology in sport is increasing all the time. This summer for the first time the Fifa World Cup, the biggest single sports event on the planet, will use what is known as VAR, or what Americans call the Video Review System.

For years, Fifa and particularly its now-disgraced President Sepp Blatter, was opposed to employing technology to aid referees determine decisions. He argued that football is so widely practised that the rules and decisions of the game should be made just by officials in internationals, as they are in local matches where it would be impossible to have technology.

What propelled a change in football were two things. First, there were a number of extremely significant incidents in high profile games, which could have been clarified if replays had been used. In 2009, the renowned striker Thierry Henry clearly handled the ball prior to France scoring a decisive goal, which knocked the Republic of Ireland out of qualifying for the World Cup. Then, in the tournament itself in South Africa, a shot from England's Frank Lampard against Germany was not given as a goal by the referee, although television pictures showed that it had crossed the line.

The second was that football was seen as lagging behind other international sports. Decisions in cricket have often been particularly contentious and frequent because so much depends on the judgement of the umpire. Officials reacted by first using video replays in the South Africa v. India match in 1992 and they are now part of the game, with many replays shown on a big screen so that the teams and the spectators are informed.

Similarly, in tennis, where much depends on line calls, replays were first screened in 2006 in the Miami Open and are now widespread in tournaments, including the four Grand Slams. Players have a limited number of challenges over the line judges and umpire and the system has proved popular and efficient. Animated replays of the flight of the ball are quickly shown on screens, which almost add to the excitement of the match, while players now are far less likely to argue with the decisions.

And so to football: the use of VAR was originally approved in June 2016 by the International Football Association Board with the first international using the system being between Italy and France three months later. By last September, several of the leading leagues had introduced the system, including Germany, Italy and the United States. France and Spain are due to bring it in this autumn.

England has held back, although the Premiership is the most watched league in television viewing figures in the world. There have been several uses in knock-out Cup fixtures and one earlier this month, between Tottenham Hotspur and Rochdale at Wembley, became controversial because of judgement calls, with the officials perhaps too eager to consult VAR.

Probably more than anywhere else in the world, English football is played at a hectic pace and there have been complaints that consulting VAR so frequently interrupts the flow of the play.

With the World Cup being the shop-window of the game, there will be particular scrutiny not only on the officiating of the game and the employment of VAR but also how the decisions are communicated to the public. Transparency and accuracy should be paramount.

One would like to see the referees inform the spectators why they are consulting the VAR. But officials should also have the confidence to make their own decisions. There will still be moments of controversy but VAR should help clarification on many of them. Football must embrace technology but not be subservient to it.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

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