In FIFA Soccer, Fairness Doesn’t Sell

Image edited by Eric Imhof


“I wanted to make a quick point about electronic review in sports,” writes Hugo Schwyzer in his post titled refs and umps are players too, immediately concluding, “I’m against it. Always.”

Schwyzer goes on to argue that instant replay drains sports of their whimsy. He writes: “There is a strange but unmistakable thrill—in sport if not in the rest of life—about the sensation of being defrauded by caprice or incompetence or fate.”

If you read these two quotes and don’t proceed to read the rest of the article, I don’t blame you. I know that I, for one, am never too thrilled about being defrauded, especially capriciously or incompetently. A horrible call may make for a good storyline the next day (or week or month or year), but by no means should that stop us from trying to make the games more fair. We should be more thrilled by a goal that actually went in then by a missed call that awards a goal that never materialized, right?

The goal/no-goal by Marko Dedic in Ukraine’s most recent Euro 2012 match with England was just the latest in a long line of fate-altering decisions made by falible humans with no recourse to correct their limited primate sensory-gathering capabilities. My esteemed colleague, Alan Dymock, wrote eloquently just 16 hours ago about the many reasons that instant replay and video review are sorely needed in the game of soccer, asking rhetorically: “It is almost too simple to actually happen, isn’t it?” Well the laconic but patently correct answer would be “yes.”

But the plain truth is that neither FIFA nor UEFA prefer fairness to tabloid fodder; Sepp Blatter would apparently rather run the risk of conspiracy talk than take any kind of simple and rational step to get the calls right, especially (and most egregiously) the goals. In a sport where 1-0 is an extremely common result, calling a goal that wasn’t or vice versa changes the outcomes of entire tournaments—and, by extension, careers.

To be fair (get it?), Blatter’s objections are different than Schwyzer’s. Blatter and other FIFA officials claim that they don’t want to interrupt the flow of the game, and that it would take too much time to look at video. This sounds like a legitimate and formidable argument until one thinks about it for more than two seconds.

Minutes are already wasted during every match: players rolling around and clutching their left (no, right, no, left!) ankle, goalies strolling from the box to midfield to take a free kick in the 89th minute, coaches making unnecessary and tedious substitutions, and so on. We already have a mechanism for dealing with these interruptions and delays. It’s called stoppage time. I don’t see one single reason why major calls—not all calls, just goals and red cards—couldn’t be quickly reviewed, adding any time spent at the end. The flow of the game remains in motion, major calls are gotten right, and, most importantly, players and fans have some kind of semblance of fairness.

Back to Schwyzer’s argument, then. I must admit I’m completely baffled by it. “I would rather have the pain of being robbed,” he writes, “than endure the dreariness of having beautiful games become subject to pauses and replays and electronic second-guessing from an official’s booth.” Well the game is already subject to pauses and replays. All those of us in favor of replays are asking is that the refs simply watch them with the rest of us, and quickly use them to get their horrible calls right.

Schwyzer mentions rooting for England and not wanting the Hand of God to be reversed. Well I typically root for Germany, and I did want England’s goal against them in the first half of their World Cup 2010 match to count. Winning with the help of a bad call must surely be worse than losing because of one.

I said at the time to everyone within earshot (I was watching the game in a bar, of course) that Germany should do the honorable thing and just score an own-goal to make the score fair. Why would one want to win because of an egregious technical error? I don’t let the kids I teach cheat when we play games because I’d like for them to learn that winning that way is hollow; I ask them, do you really want an asterisk next to your name in the record books? But there would be much less asterisks, or maybe even none, if refs could simply glance at a replay to make sure they get major calls right. That’s surely worth 20 seconds of stoppage time.

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