9 March 2016

Video Replays: What Soccer Can Learn From Cricket And Rugby

Antoinette Muller

Gianni Infantino, the newly appointed President of FIFA, has said he wants soccer to consider video replay trials “sooner rather than later”. The beautiful game has lagged behind with the implementation of this technology, and while it will be broadly welcomed, it should take a few lessons from cricket and rugby to make sure the trials and subsequent implementation goes smoothly.

New FIFA President Gianni Infantino of Switzerland attends a friendly soccer match at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, 29 February 2016. Infantino has been elected as new FIFA President at the Extraordinary FIFA Congress 2016 in Zurich on 26 February 2016.  EPA / Ennio Leanza.

New FIFA President Gianni Infantino of Switzerland attends a friendly soccer match at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, 29 February 2016. Infantino has been elected as new FIFA President at the Extraordinary FIFA Congress 2016 in Zurich on 26 February 2016. EPA / Ennio Leanza.

He’s not even been in the job for a week, but already Gianni Infantino is making all the right noises about changing not just FIFA, but the way forward for the game. One thing Infantino would like to change is the use of technology in the sport.

This seemingly swift action is in contrast to his predecessor, Sepp Blatter, who took years to be converted to the thought of goal-line technology and wasn’t convinced about possible replays until 2014.

“Football is a special game,” said Infantino, who was elected as FIFA’s new president last Friday. “It’s the most beautiful and the most important sport in the world. We don’t have to kill football. One of the peculiarities of football is the flow of the game. It doesn’t stop like many other sports when you have to time to stop and look at a video.

“In football you have a flow, you have a referee who takes important decisions. So we need to see what type of impact any technological help will have on the flow. We need to start with serious tests sooner rather than later.”

Soon could be next season. The International FA Cup board will be in Cardiff on Saturday and is expected to approve live trials of video technology which could be used as soon as next season’s FA Cup.

The concept is not new. In 2014 already, American MLS (Major League Soccer) commissioner Don Garber voiced his support for using technology in the league.

“We spoke to the board [of governors] about how instant replay might work. We think it can work, we’d love to see it work,”Garber said on television at half-time of the MLS All-Star Game.“We’ve got to talk to US Soccer, we’ve got to talk to FIFA, we’ve got to make sure the technology works, but you should know that MLS is a supporter of the idea.”

Critics say video technology might interrupt the game’s flow since soccer tends to be far less stop-start than rugby. But data was collected by the MLS, which quietly ran trials with a low-tech version of video review in three markets — Philadelphia, Vancouver and Salt Lake City. The reviews focused on red cards, penalties and goals and involved officials watching the game on two monitors, one connected to a live feed, the other to a recorder. When a penalty, red card or goal was called, video officials would look at the replay and confirm the decision and communicate back to the referee.

The reviews that focused on passages of play that already resulted in stoppage proved to have no impact on the “flow” and MLS executives say a decision is usually made within 20 seconds.

Jeff Agoos, the head of competition for MLS, told The Guardian last year: “When you think about it, the officials are the ones in the stadiums that have the least amount of information of anyone there. The fans can literally click on their iPhone and within 30 seconds get a replay of the event. The officials don’t have that technology, and that makes no sense. They should have the ability to get more information to make a decision.”

When Blatter eventually came around to the idea, he suggested having “challenges” — as in cricket — for decisions to be reviewed, but this is exactly where the fear of “disruption” could come in. In cricket, reviews have evolved to sometimes being a waste of time masquerading as a strategy. The Decision Review System in cricket is designed for players to have a say in having decisions reviewed and teams who find themselves in trouble will often review decisions for the sake of it. It is an astronomical waste of time and is something soccer should take note of.

Rugby’s review system is much closer to what soccer should be aiming for. A decision is referred upstairs by the on-field officials and the information is objectively relayed back. But where soccer should differentiate is that the decision to review should not rest solely with the on-field official. All decisions that result in a stoppage in play should constantly be reviewed (penalties, red cards and goals) and as play stops, information should immediately be replayed.

In some sports, handing the decision over to the players on the field can cause far too many delays. While rugby has far more stoppages in play compared to soccer, Varsity Cup experimented with the review system — called a white card — last season, but the results were underwhelming. Midway through the Varsity Cup season, only 41% were successful. Of them, 57% overturned foul play and it took nearly two minutes on average, compared to a minute and a half for referee referrals, for a decision to be reviewed. Even for rugby's broken up nature, that seems a long time.

Rugby’s blueprint — without on field challenge — is something players support, too. Former footballer, Louis Saha, wrote in a column last year:

“Why can't football simply replay video of disputed incidents, then and there, to get an accurate picture of what actually happened? Not only would this disclose the truth, but it’d also be more effective than goal-line technology and less costly than other more complicated high-tech methods. The technology is there — why not use it? Other industries constantly push the tech boundaries and there’s no reason why football shouldn’t be doing the same.”

That Infantino wants to embrace technology as soon as possible is refreshing. But FIFA should ensure it implements a very clear mandate for testing video replays. Reviews simply will not work and it is imperative that officials reviewing the footage remain as objective as possible when relaying formation back to the on-field referee.

Instead of saying, “That is a red card”, review officials should say things like,“straight leg, studs up” which would allow the system to work far better and allow the on-field referee to make a decision based on all the information available to them. Training everyone involved in the use of the tech is vital.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.