Last week, the head of Fifa’s referee committee, Pierluigi Collina claimed that 99.3% of “match-changing” decisions have been, thanks to the newly introduced Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, called correctly at the World Cup.
This meant, the former World Cup referee said, that the system was working “very, very close to perfection”.
Fifa were one of the late adaptors to VAR technology, with their former president Sepp Blatter insisting VAR would overly disrupt games and undermine the authority of the on-field officials.
Blatter’s objections to VAR were mainly ego related. He hadn’t thought of the idea and, worse, political rivals had; accordingly, as long as he was in power he blocked VAR in football.
Once Blatter was removed on corruption grounds, Fifa began trialling VAR in earnest in various competitions globally.
As they learned more about VAR in practice, they adapted their protocols around the use of video technology. The underlying idea was to ensure that good use of VAR would supplement, not supplant the referee’s authority.
At the end of the trial period, Fifa decided that on balance the benefits of VAR in terms of certainty of outcome outweighed any potential burden on the game’s flow and that they were confident enough to use it at the World Cup for the first time.
The use of technology of this kind in sport has a surprisingly long history.
Having clarity of outcome in a sporting event was, given its association with gambling, always hugely important to our oldest sporting industry, horse racing.
In 1882, when the French Derby ended in a dead heat, a famous photographer of the era, Edward Muybridge, wrote to the Nature Journal saying that the adaptation of emerging motion picture technology and cameras would soon see the dead heat replaced by the photo finish.
The feeling in racing at the time, particularly in America was that the system of having a judge or judges at the finish line led to results generally biased in favour of the horse nearest to or on the inside of the judges’ sightline.
A year previously, at a meet in New Jersey, a wire was laid along the finish line of a race providing, for the first time, a crude photo of the finish.
The photographic technology of the time was not, however, well developed and was expensive to install. It wasn’t until the 1930s that it was widely adopted in racing.
This was due to a touch of Hollywood glamour. In the 1930s, Hollywood produced some of the most famous movies ever made: For example, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr Chips, and Stagecoach were released in 1939 alone.
Hollywood was also the Silicon Valley of motion picture technology at the time.
In 1937, Lorenzo del Riccio, an engineer with Paramount Pictures, developed what was called a “strip camera” that was seen as perfect for capturing the finish of a horse race.
When one of the greatest entertainment stars of the time, Bing Crosby, invested in the Del Mar Turf Club in California, he ensured that Del Ricco’s invention was installed at the track.
There was an important reason behind Crosby’s enthusiasm for the technology. Horse racing, along with the other major sport of the decade, boxing, was susceptible to Mafia-related corruption.
Horse racing was particularly vulnerable, given that the liquidity of the betting markets could be used by the mob for money laundering purposes. Photo finish technology was, therefore, an important means of ensuring the integrity of the sport and events at the Del Mar track.
The transparency of VAR remains an important integrity oversight for sport today. Fifa has recently had to deal with match-fixing allegations against referees, including a referee found to have attempted to fix a World Cup qualifier game between Senegal and South Africa.
In the build-up to the World Cup itself, Fifa removed from its panel of referees a referee from Saudi Arabia, again on match-fixing grounds.
When the Bundesliga introduced VAR for the 2017/18 season, it quickly had to remove Hellmut Krug, the head of the VAR system, on account of allegations he was biased towards Schalke, the club he supported.
The integrity of referees on and off the field is fundamental to all sports. That is why the concerns expressed this week by former Donegal footballer Martin McHugh are worrying for the GAA, if they can be substantiated.
McHugh has said he is aware of situations where inter-county football teams invite top-level referees to training sessions, paying them what he called “generous” expenses, to referee in-house games, with a view to being officiated by that referee later in the season.
In most sports worldwide, this allegation would be investigated thoroughly, given its potential impact on the game’s integrity, if proven; and its impact on the reputation of the referees involved, if not.
Returning to video technology, it really took off in the 1960s when an American TV executive working with the ABC TV network saw its potential application to American football, which is very much a play-by-play or episodic sport.
That executive, Roone Arledge, the father of Monday Night Football, introduced slow motion and instant or action replays. The move helped transform the game as an entertainment product and in 1994 Sports Illustrated ranked Arledge third among those who have had the greatest influence in world sport.
The first significant use by ABC of a slow-motion replay in sport was surrounded by tragedy.
In 1962, ABC had live coverage of a high-profile fight between two leading welterweights of the era, Emile Griffith and Benny Paret. In the build-up to the bout, Paret had repeatedly taunted Griffith with homophobic slurs.
An enraged Griffith pummelled Paret in the ring. As the post-fight interview with Griffith took place, and with millions of viewers still tuned in, it became clear that the slow motion was likely capturing the death of the man in the ring. Paret died 10 days later from his brain injuries.
This brings us on to a use of VAR that goes beyond player discipline and onto player safety. Video technology is now being used to assist medical teams in spotting players who might be suffering from concussion. Uefa and Fifa have taken the NFL lead in this regard.
The prime example of the need for video concussion spotters occurred in this year’s Champions League final, when the Liverpool medical team at pitchside did not see through a thicket of players and officials that their goalkeeper, Karius, had suffered a concussive blow to the head as a result of an incident with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos.
Finally, video assistance has now become an integral part of so many sports. Tennis uses it particularly well and also give players the power to challenge the decision of umpires.
The challenge system is something that soccer and even the GAA might consider in the future, as it might stop the current practice of managers theatrically and sometime aggressively approaching sideline officials with every perceived grievance in the game.
With some managers, a “put up or shut up” approach might be the best VAR protocol of all.
Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne. Tonight at the University of Limerick, he will give a free, open, public lecture on concussion awareness in sport.
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