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Soccer could use instant replay, but not at expense of the sport's flow


You can always tell there's a problem when politicians start talking about sport. After England's 4-1 loss to Germany on Sunday, even British Prime Minister David Cameron started banging on about the need for technology to be used to help referees in football.

Frank Lampard's shot, which would have evened the score at 2-2, hit the bar and bounced down over the line, only for the Uruguayan assistant, Mauricio Espinosa, to fail to give the goal. England would have been extremely fortunate to be level at that point, but the psychology of the game may have changed, and without the panicked surge for an equalizer, it surely would not have conceded two soft goals on the break in the second half, although it may well have found another way to lose.

Later in the day, Argentina beat Mexico 3-1, its first goal coming from a player many yards offside.

"I do think that the use of technology in sport can be a bonus," Cameron said. "I'm a keen follower of cricket and tennis and I think the third umpire has been a great thing and the machines that bleep at Wimbledon are quite handy too. Maybe that's something that football could now have a look at."

Soccer, of course, has been looking at the use of technology for years without reaching any satisfactory conclusions. There are those, the FIFA president Sepp Blatter included, who argue that conditions should be the same for any level of game and that cameras or goal-line technology could not be introduced on park pitches, an excuse that is a non-starter. Others sports get away with it and, besides, conditions aren't the same at all levels; it's not uncommon at the lowest level for games to not even have linesmen. Of course, technological assistance would be more difficult to implement at, say, Chad vs. Djibouti than at France-Germany or USA-Mexico, but those essentially are administrative details.

The major stumbling block, rather, is the nature of the game, the very thing that makes soccer the most watched sport in the world, and that is its fluidity. Almost all other sports are comprised of a series of discrete actions. Test cricket, for instance, is made up of 540 separate moments of play -- balls -- each day; tennis is a series of points; rugby has regular breakdowns.

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In football, though, the play can often go uninterrupted for two to three minutes, and one of the key tactical elements is deciding how many players to commit to the attack, knowing that to push too many forward (as England did against Germany) is to leave yourself vulnerable to a counter. Say there's a penalty appeal at one end; when does the referee call for a replay? If he does so straight after the alleged foul, then he may prevent the defending team, having perhaps won the ball legitimately, from sweeping forward in a counterattack, the possibility of which is one of the joys of the game.

But if he waits until the ball goes out of play, he might find himself with a lengthy passage of play to cancel out involving who knows how many additional incidents. (Imagine the furor if he had to rule out a goal at one end to award a penalty at the other, or, even more weirdly, if he had to rule out a goal to give the team who had just scored a penalty for which they had appealed two minutes earlier.) Once a move has been stopped, it cannot be restarted; so if a player who is onside is incorrectly called offside and the attack stopped, how could technology help him? Some refereeing mistakes cannot be rectified by being overturned.

Just as big an issue is that so much in soccer is down to interpretation. Two players jostle for a ball; which way the foul is often down to aggression of intent, and that is something probably best judged by the instinct of a referee than by endless replays that cannot give a definitive answer anyway. The fear is that football ceases to be a game of relentless fluency, and becomes instead one punctured by long delays as officials examine replays. At the moment there is a reluctance even to use videos retroactively other than to prove acts of violent conduct, when it would seem that it could be used, for instance, to help stamp out simulation. The argument is made that whether something is a dive or not is not always clear from replays. That is true, but some are, and those who are clearly guilty surely should be punished. Just because some murderers go unpunished doesn't mean we should stop prosecuting killers altogether.

Nonetheless, in terms of the use of technology during play, there is a balance to be found between getting decisions right and maintaining the flow of the game. Certain calls -- such as line decisions -- are absolute, and it seems hard to believe technology cannot be developed to determine whether the ball has or has not crossed the line (whether it is worth the cost given the comparative rarity of such issues is another matter). Indeed, Dr. Paul Hawkins, the developer of the Hawkeye technology used in tennis and cricket, said after Lampard's non-goal that his system could be implemented in soccer immediately.

"Goal-line incidents are the only decisions which are entirely definitive and the answer can be provided to the referee within 0.5 seconds of the incident happening," he said. "This makes a clear distinction between goal-line and other decisions. Referees want goal-line technology. It would be there to help them, not to replace them."

Other incidents are rather more difficult, partly because many are down to interpretation and partly because of the lack of breaks in soccer. It has been suggested that a team should be allowed a certain number of challenges -- as is the case in tennis and cricket -- by which they can ask for a video to be reviewed and a referee's decision potentially to be overturned, but again the question is when the challenge could be made. It must not become a means by which a manager can cynically check an opposition breakaway.

In the Europa League, UEFA has experimented without great success, with extra officials to the side of each goal, My own view is that it would be rather more useful to have just one additional official watching a television monitor and drawing the referee's attention to anything he's missed, in the same way a linesman does already. Again, though, there could be an issue with offenses that become apparent only on viewing a third or fourth replay -- after how long could a referee go back and change a decision?

Still, a simple glance at a monitor would have ensured the two key calls on Sunday were corrected; then again, as David James pointed out, given Lampard's shot went about two feet over the line, and given Carlos Tevez was at least three yards offside, those were decisions it shouldn't take technology to get right.