A more precise game isn’t more beautiful. Mistakes keep the sport exciting, be they in a pub match or a World Cup final.
Opposing goal-line technology appears, on the face of it, to be a fool’s errand. Who doesn’t want referees to make the right decisions? Which English football supporter, remembering Frank Lampard’s wrongly disallowed goal against Germany in the last World Cup, wouldn’t dream that maybe the national team might have avoided ignominious defeat had that goal been allowed?
Football fans, however, should be careful what they wish for. The drive to GLT is not the result of a desire for fairness and accuracy. Instead the words its proponents routinely invoke when demanding its introduction are: “With so much at stake …” By which they mean, with the rewards for success and the costs of failure at top-level football so immense, human error is unacceptable.
Why so? The beauty of football is that every officially sanctioned game is the same. The pitch must be of a size conforming to the strictures of the laws of the game; the goals are the same size regardless of the teams; the officials apply the same laws, whether it’s a World Cup final or a Sunday league game between two pub teams. GLT will destroy this thread of consistency running through the game: economics dictates that cameras (and officials to study their pictures) will become too expensive only a little way down football’s pyramid. The park players on a weekend morning will be playing a different game to the professionals in the afternoon. Indeed, most of the professionals will be playing a different game to the elite few at the very top level, which is where GLT will likely find its home. And once GLT is in place, the demands will begin for further technological aids – to decide offsides, penalties and so on.
The only logical way for the referee to maintain his authority and work with technology is for technology to be applied to every element of the game. Then he can be tucked up in an office somewhere in the stadium with a load of blinking screens analysing every blade of grass, every tugged shirt and every sleight of hand. With all this information available to him, he’ll be top dog, free to interpret every subtle nuance in line with the Laws of the Game. He’d need an assistant on the pitch to actually enact his decisions, and there’d be lots of pauses to double-check possible offsides, bad tackles, handballs etc.; but so be it.
For me, and for many other fans, one of the beauties of football is its imperfection. Your favourite player might be capable of beating six opponents then calmly sidefooting the ball wide of the target. Your goalkeeper might make a wonder save then inexplicably throw the ball to the other side’s centre-forward. And it is the very same with referees and their assistants: most of the game they get everything right, but then – to the bafflement and anger of 30,000 people – they’ll make a decision so wrong it beggars belief. And you know what? I’m fine with that. It is a reminder that we are all but human, and our lives are littered with errors.
The imperfect, in fact, is celebrated above all else in football. Players and managers cut deep with flaws are celebrated above the metronomes who do their job without incident. That’s why we still talk about Diego Maradona and Eric Cantona or Pele. It’s why one of the best-known TV clips, from the 1970 World Cup, shows Pelé missing a goal, not scoring. It’s why people watch compilations of terrible mistakes.
More to the point, though, disputes make football more exciting. Where commentators view an on-pitch fight and pompously declare “No one wants to see scenes like that”, fans see the same thing and bellow their approval. Equally, everyone who’s ever crowded into a stadium knows the up-swell of anger and adrenalin that follows a horrible call by the referee. They know the way the atmosphere picks up, the way voices rise, the way the fans exhort the team on to greater heights to compensate for the perfidy of officialdom – until 20,000 people are singing “You don’t know what you’re doing” at the referee. Those moments, when passion becomes uncontainable, are exactly what makes football great. Why on earth would anyone want to take them away from the game?