Thursday, 3 May 2018

Video evidence should prompt reform of the offside law

I once wrote a short story narrated by a linesman who disallows the best goal of all time. It's a slick, 33-pass move, followed by a mazy, Messiesque dribble, then an audacious cross that ends with a spectacular, Ronaldoesque overhead kick. The linesman flags for offside, and the TV replays prove him correct. But only by a negligible margin of an inch or two. His decision is spot on, according to the rules, but he's globally vilified for being the man who cancels out what is inarguably the most brilliant move in the history of football. 

Lines the linesman cannot
see. Do we need them?
This story rolled around my head and was forgotten long before the introduction of video evidence, but now its moral again seems pertinent. In the Bundesliga this season, goals have been celebrated by fans, only for their joy to be annulled minutes later by a cold, factual look at the video evidence. Most famously, Cologne's very late 'winner' against Hanover was (correctly) overturned for offside by the video referee, while an earlier incident when a Cologne player was erroneously called offside in a goal-scoring position was ignored - presumably because it would have been impossible to bring play back (one of many flaws in the video evidence system). 

A reader's letter in this week's kicker bemoans the use of video evidence to correct offside decisions as yet another step in diminishing football's role as 'the people's game'. Siegfried Müller of Karlsruhe argues that football can easily dispense with arguing about marginal decisions. "The law should be
changed so that a player has to have his whole body beyond the second to last defender before he can be judged as offside. This would be a huge step in helping referees to avoid wrong calls."

This argument has been made before - that offside should only count when there is 'space' between the attacker and the second to last defender. I'm not sure why it was rejected. It wouldn't be a perfect system, but it would work on several levels. 1. It certainly would be easier to judge, both from the linesman's perspective and the video referee's point of view. 2. It would lead to fewer defenders trying to spring the offside trap. 3. It would encourage attacking play, stretch the game, and result in more goals (considered by many, though not all, to be A Good Thing).

Everyone knows why offside laws were introduced in the first place - in order to prevent the farce of players hanging around the opponent's goal. Offside is a necessary law, as demonstrated by the 11 Freunde experiment of staging a game without it. But the spirit of the offside law is not covered by the scrutiny it's now being subjected to by video evidence.

More bloody lines. Just give
the goal, for Christ's sake.
Some of us may vaguely recall that FIFA once issued a directive saying that attacking teams "should be given the benefit of the doubt" in offside situations. That's not helpful to anyone, however, because the directive is nowhere to be found in the laws of the game. An actual law that aids the attacking team in an era of ultra-tight encounters and predictably raised arms from out-classed, outraged defenders can only benefit the people that the game is being played for in the first place - the paying fan (if you said 'the shareholders' you are either a cynic or a shareholder).

From an amateur referee's point of view, I would love nothing more than some extra leeway, given that - as regular readers of this blog will know - contested offside calls are a weekly cause of upset and obstreperous abuse about both my eyesight and my judgment. "He was level!" I often call out while waving the forward through, on occasion having absolutely no real fucking idea at all whether or not he or she was level with the second-last defender. But then, neither have the defenders or the apoplectic coach wetting himself 50 yards away on the touchline. Though it's only a matter of time before some well-resourced clubs start taping their games. Then my afternoons will be rounded off with bug-eyed team officials knocking on my changing room door, brandishing a smart-phone or a tablet to prove that I have not only just cruelly robbed them of a point in the District League Division 9, but have trodden on their fundamental human rights too.

I honestly can't remember the fate of my fictional linesman narrator. I think he's forced into hiding and descends into a hell of drugs, alcohol and depression. Maybe a more realistic ending would be that he's promoted by Fifa to become their Head of Law Compliance. The appointment receives the backing of the European Club Association, which says that these decisions are too economically crucial to be left to the human eye. And one day they all agree that the game would be improved if it was simply refereed by infallible robots. 

But who would the losing team blame then?

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Why stop there? Can't the players be replaced by robots too? Imagine the warm glow we'd feel watching a game devoid of spitting, swearing and, most reprehensible of all, human error.

  3. Linesman????? nah, Assistant Referee...c'mon