I’ll have a ref, thank you – by: Jan Vorstenbosch

This essay was published over two years ago (early 2013) in Dutch daily Trouw. The author is Jan Vorstenbosch, a philosopher and football expert. A researcher at the University of Utrecht, he also teaches ethics there. In 2010 he published “Voetbalgek”, his philosophical reflections on all things football. Jan reacted with great enthusiasm to my request to translate his essay for this website. In fact, he even volunteered to write a postscript, setting out the ideas he has had on the topic since publication of the essay. This postscript follows immediately below the essay.

Goal-line technology as a spoilsport

19 June 2012: John Terry attempts to clear the ball off the goal line in European Championships match against Ukraine. The ball has crossed the line, but this fact eludes the referee. Having the benefit of replays, the TV audience does not miss the goal. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GettyImages)

Even when misfortune strikes, self-control on the football pitch is paramount, pre-empting the need for goal-line technology, argues football philosopher Vorstenbosch. Also, that way the referee can do what he does best: reffing

Tuesday 19 June 2012, UEFA European Championships. The Dutch side put on a disappointing display in its first few games and things would only go downhill from there. But that’s not the main talking point of the evening. Host country Ukraine loses 0-1 to England because the refereeing team misjudged a situation when English defender John Terry hooked a ball clear after it had crossed the goal line. The entire football community is up in arms, debating the pros and cons of technology as an aid for referees.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter sends out a tweet saying that goal-line technology (GLT for short) ‘is no longer an alternative but a necessity’. Most tweets are instantly forgotten, but this one calls for – and bears – some explanation. Blatter, whose views on football had been staunchly conservative until then, had been won over by something, but by what? And why now? Why not after that screw-up at the 2010 World Cup when the referee and his assistants missed Frank Lampard’s goal in England’s loss to Germany, when his shot ricocheted off the underside of the bar and bounced two feet behind the line? And why ‘a necessity’?

Very few laws of football are ‘a necessity’; they just evolved over time and are subject to change, but only if there are very good reasons for doing so. I hesitate to say it out loud, but might Blatter’s necessity have to do with the financial interests the providers of goal-line technology systems, such as Hawk-Eye, have in their systems being installed in dozens of stadiums around the world?

One of the principles applied by the IFAB, the international committee maintaining the laws of football, is the simplicity of the game. Many make little of the import of this principle – wrongly so. The present situation is pretty straightforward: the referee is the final authority on the award or disallowance of a goal. If his observation was incorrect and the ball crossed the line, nothing is simpler, or more facile, than subjecting him to a torrent of abuse. This unique situation has by then scaled up to an endlessly repeated and zoomed-in replay that enables everyone to see ‘with their own eyes’ that the ref made the wrong call. With literally tens of thousands sitting and watching every move, the replays undermine the referee’s authority within seconds of his decision.

Isn’t it about time goal-line technology were introduced to set referee mistakes right?

I think not. From the World Cups and Europe Championships played over the past forty years a grand total of three situations have survived in which GLT could have changed the outcome.

The number of situations in the Champions League and the top national leagues will undoubtedly be much higher, but even so, would it really justify the multi-million investment needed? Fortunately, Michel Platini, president of UEFA, has asked himself that same question.

More arguments can be made against GLT, all of which have their basis in simplicity. Goal-line technology would make matters more complex, for any or all of the following three reasons.

It is quite possible that these systems are capable of making mistakes as well: programming errors or hardware errors when the crossbar is left quivering upon being hit by a shot. There is also a structural issue, which presents a more interesting complication. A system like Hawk-Eye, which follows the ball when it is in play, is based on the conversion of data into images; it is nothing like a simple television replay or a ‘finish photo’.

There are enough reasons to question the infallibility of the electronic pope 

Before the FIFA Club World Cup match of 9 December in Toyota, Japan, the referee uses a ball to test the goal-line technology to be used. (This is a different photo!)

Inevitably, this conversion has an error margin, a false positive one – the ball did not cross the line, yet the system says it did – as well as a false negative one – the ball did cross the line, but the system says it did not.

The importance of this error margin increases as the question whether or not the ball ‘fully’ crossed the line determines the winner in major matches. It is very well possible, then, that in borderline situations authority is vested in Hawk-Eye which the system may not rightly deserve. What’s more, video replays enable everyone to judge situations ‘with their own eyes’, even though it is in hindsight and from the comfortable position not afforded to the ref. The Hawk-Eye system requires ‘belief’ without the ability to verify anything. There’s no doubt people will muster this belief, for it has been noted before that technology is the new religion. Still, there are definitely reasons to question the infallibility of the electronic pope.

The argument causing the greatest deal of confusion is that refereeing mistakes are ‘unfair’ to the affected side. I suspect that people asserting this idea model this on the situation where a convicted offender is exonerated when later DNA test result proved his innocence.

The judge had made an ‘objective’ error. However, a referee is not a judge; he is not called a referee for nothing. He has been given the authority to take instantaneous decisions in apply the laws of the game to situation where two warring parties clash and ‘refer’ to him to take control of the confrontation. His power to decide does not extend to a random act from a distant past. The referee must act immediately on the basis of his best observation, allowing the game to progress.

Fairness in football is a different story from fairness in law, its meaning most pertaining to both sides having equal (‘fair’) chances of winning. What is fair about a shot bouncing off the cross bar behind the goal-line rather than in front of it? What is fair about a side playing rough, defensive tactics taking the three points home owing to the other team’s keeper letting in a howler? What is fair about a team losing its best player to being kicked out of the game by a defender and losing as a result? Nothing unfair about it, that’s all in the game!

Well, isn’t the occasional refereeing blunder all in the game as well?

Why do people stubbornly stick to the idea that occasional refereeing blunders are unfair and unjust? After all, the referee is “only human” too, isn’t he? There is no foul play on his part. The underlying reason is the interests at stake in modern-day professional football, the money involved, the prizes. Players, managers and fans think in terms of ‘entitlement’ to the right reward to match performance. Performance and reward are put on a par with ‘labour’ and ‘wages’.

Because of the use of cameras people tend to see the referee as a sub-par camera 

The side against which a decision is given is the ‘victim’ on account of being entitled to the ‘clear’ goal because it has an interest in that goal. It would have been awarded the goal if that ‘blind effing ref’ had judged the situation correctly: “It’s my living, you know” is the standard phrase uttered by ‘wronged’ pros. On balance, there is no ‘entitlement’ to victory, the actual situation being that two teams make an effort to win in a regulated confrontation affected by rules, strategy, skill, application and lots and lots of coincidence. It is possible for teams to make themselves less dependent on one of these coincidences – the odds that the referee will make a mistake – by playing to win.

Which brings me to the other arguments in favour of maintaining the status quo, in favour of simplicity and in favour of the rehabilitation of the referee. Like the players, the referee performs an arduous, important activity, which is to let the game flow and manage it honestly and to the best of his ability. This is a hell of a job at any level given the rivalry and emotions, which even the pros have trouble suppressing at times.

I know from experience that reffing well is, in many ways, more difficult than playing well: not only does it make high moral, social and physical demands, it also requires great observational skills, speedy decision-making and guts. Many see the referee as someone who is henpecked or as a masochist, but I consider him to be a hero of our times, a lone ranger not afraid to take responsibility in a world where only too many duck responsibility. In practice, accepting that the ref makes the occasional mistake – a belief many pay lip service too – means that in forming your strategy you should take account of the ref’s fallibility and not moan and groan when that mistake occurs.

WC 2010: Germany’s keeper Neuer is beaten. The ball bounces well behind the goal-line, but the referee fails to award the English a goal. From this moment, the introduction of smart goal-line technology became inevitable.

Goal-line technology is likely to frustrate this situation of respect and acceptance in two ways. It undermines the referee’s authority in that it is a visible reminder of the referee’s fallibility. The camera’s perfect ‘observation’ just feeds the tendency of people to view the referee as a sub-par camera, a twat who “should’ve gone to Specsavers”. If anything is unfair, that is. If anything, the presence of cameras may cause the ref to stop honing his skill of observation, for his observations no longer matter anyway.

The game is made more interesting if the prominent role of the referee as someone possessing qualities and vulnerabilities of his own is taken into account. Thus, the human scale is retained and the kosmos, the harmonious system prevalent on the field of play, remains transparent and unique.

These days, match results are increasingly dictated by singular, often arbitrary, moments. As a result, the debate focuses more and more on whatever possibilities there are left to regulate these few-and-far-between situations. However, that is the very thing that’s killing the beauty of the game. It is by maintaining the possibility of the refereeing mistake that players can be forced to take more responsibility and not to rely on the infallibility of the referee.

Instead, the debate should shift to law changes which do justice to the spirit of football, which challenge teams into abandoning their risk-avoiding tactics and increase the number of goals. I made a few proposals to such effect in my book Voetbalgek (Lemniscaat, 2010). Let’s have the match run its fluent, unique, original and tense course and let’s stop those who refuse to play to win head-on from moaning about that single moment the referee missed a call.

Lastly, football is played on tens of thousands of pitches all around the world. Goal-line technology can only be introduced on a few hundred of these pitches: stadiums. As things are, the laws of the game are the same at every level and no matter where it is played. GLT and other innovations would break this uniformity. It’s the universal applicability of the rules that enables people everywhere to identify with the game.

A football match is not obligatory labour where one gets the wages one deserves; rather, it is a game of uncertainties, challenging skills and character before the eyes of many, with Lady Luck and the man in black playing their own parts. In this hue, football is a unique form of human interaction, a reflection of the vicissitudes of life itself. Rather than a welcome addition, goal-line technology would be a spoilsport.

Cameras: FIFA in favour, UEFA against

FIFA president Sepp Blatter is confident that GLT will make a difference. Last week’s Club World Cup was the first international competition to make use of goal-line technology (GLT). FIFA are testing two systems: GoalRef (which uses a magnetic chip and a special ball) and Hawk-Eye (which uses cameras and is already familiar to viewers of tennis). One of these two systems will be chosen to be used at the Confederations Cup in June of this year and at the 2014 World Cup, Brazil being the venue for both events. President of the UEFA Michel Platini continues to resist the introduction of technology. His main objection is cost. Platini: “Spread over five years, it will cost 50 million euro to introduce GLT in the main European competitions. I much prefer spending that money on the development of football itself. If there’s a referee behind the goal, standing one metre from the line and wearing good glasses, he should be able to see whether or not the ball crossed the goal-line.” Platini remains an advocate of the present UEFA five-men arbitration teams: one referee, two assistant referees and two additional assistant referees on the goal lines.

Postscript to ‘I’d rather have a ref calling’ 

This article was published two years ago in the Dutch newspaper Trouw. In the meantime the Dutch Football Organization KNVB has introduced goal line technology. A system was installed in several stadiums of Eredivisie clubs for shorter periods of a few months.

Did the experience with these installations change my views on the subject? In response to this question I should like to make three comments, and postpone the deeper analysis of the changes to a later occasion.  I am working on a book in which a systematic view of the future for football, with further ideas about the role of referees, is elaborated within a wider normative framework of rules.

First, the number of occasions in which goal line technology made a difference is rather trivial. I can recall two occasions in which there were doubts about the ball being on or over the line and the call of the system was decisive. Of course, the relative low number of decisions is not a real argument in itself, unless we consider the (opportunity) costs involved. But an interesting matter, leading up to the second comment, is that in a number of occasions the system was redundant because video replay of the available TV footage would have been sufficient. In addition, the closer the call of the system is the more the question rises whether the system itself made the correct decision relative to the ‘real’ place of the ball, because it also is liable to a fault margin of some 3-5 mm, which in view of influencing factors such as the drawing of the line, the reverberations of the goal structure and the pressure on the ball enforces decisions from the designers of the system which may well be non-neutral as to the outcome of the system. For controversy about this margin see: https://scoreboardjournalism.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/what-is-the-error-margin-of-goal-line-technology/  (thanks to Ben van Maaren for this reference).

Second, the enthusiasm about goal line technology and its presumed impartiality and infallibity has led to renewed calls for video replay, and in general: a second opinion for referee decisions in football across the board. But really there are important differences between goal line technology and video replay. Video replay delivers a more or less bit-by-bit representation, a copy, of a situation that has occurred. This is either a snap-shot, a finish photo, or a live replay of a series of actions. Goal line technologies such as Hawkeye translate the situation by a processing of their own and present a formalized, mathematically-physically coordinated pattern of the ‘original’ situation. This translation is not accessible to the human eye, it is a device the result of which has to be believed. The crucial thing is that goal line technology does not help a human referee to improve the judgment in second instance but that it replaces the judgment of the human referee.

Third, and most important, this difference between replacement and second opinion makes the issue of goal line technology at first sight less controversial than video replay, the latter remaining in many cases (especially those which involve the intention of the player) a matter of interpretation and an interference that has a much greater impact on the fluency and other elements of the game. Goal line technology, for all its seeming obviousness, may be philosophically more interesting because it involves at least two important structural features of the world’s most popular ball game.

The first feature is concerned with the purity of the match as a public event, with a time-space of its own, from which as far as possible all influences from outside are excluded. Goal line technology is in a literary sense as well as symbolic sense, a matter at the edge of this time-space and its purity, because it defers and out-sources the decision to a technological system that is completely strange to the sport as such and of which the procedures and possible manipulation are not visible to the players and the public (in a different context, that of voting, this matter of material and public ‘traceability’ has led in the Netherlands to a ban on the use of computer systems. This might be the downside to the presumption of impartiality of the system).

The second feature relates to the balancing of several dimensions of the ball game, such as the role and impact of competence and control, chance, risk taking, strategy, courage and combativeness, and fairness. By diminishing and even degrading the role of the referee in the ball game, the illusion is reinforced that the game can remain as it is, now that “justice will be done by infallible ‘expert’ systems” which reconstruct situations as they were a moment ago. The hypothesis that by accepting the happening of change occurrences such as there are many besides mistakes of the referee, the probability of these occurrences would force the teams to a different attitude, more open, combative and attacking, is not even considered. Instead of really confronting the question by what rules the beautiful game can be conserved in a way that leads to a viable future, a future which is already endangered by commercial, economical, technological and political influences, most people seem to embrace a totem of modern technology as the savior of the sport. Once again the myth of technology is crowding out the interesting and unique features of a human activity which has its own historical and mythological dimensions, which are – to finish on the right note – kept alive by involuntary but human mistakes of the referees in perceiving the position of the ball on or over the line.

Much more can and will be said on these two features, but as far as my own thinking on the matter goes: on the basis of the ‘empirical’ experience with goal line systems, I see no need to change my view on the issue.

Jan Vorstenbosch, 17 July/7 September 2015

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