As a football fan, I’m more than used to seeing teams I support make mistakes. To err is human, so that’s something I just learn to live with. After all, referees are human too.
But gross mistakes in history that could have been avoided with the use of instant replay (and saved me from a lot of shouting at the TV) include Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup that wasn’t given despite being two feet behind the line; Thierry Henry’s handling of the ball before crossing it in for a goal, which meant France qualified over Ireland for the same World Cup; and most famously, Maradona’s “Hand of God” against England when he scored his infamous non-goal by netting the ball with his fist.
One thing we’re meant to learn in sports is that mistakes are made and an athlete should take it in their stride. But when the game is meant to be fair and those who do right are wronged, and those who deliberately do wrong benefit from it, then you’re sort of endorsing bad behaviour. Is it OK to cheat if you can get away with it?
Hence the introduction of the video assistant referee (or VAR). Now, every goal will be checked to make sure there’s no infringement leading up to it. But what constitutes an infringement is up for debate. I’m talking about offsides in particular.
To rule is simple: a player isn’t allowed to hang around near an opposition goal when play is going on elsewhere. They used to do this 100-something years ago, when “kick-throughs” would loiter up a field, waiting for a ball so they can score.
Nowadays, the offside rule makes this illegal. An attacker has to wait behind the defender, and then make a sprint forward as the ball is kicked, timing his run in behind the defender to receive it.
You can imagine the problem as it can come down to a very fine margin. You want to time your run so you’re just alongside the defender as the ball is kicked, and that the defender is moving as well, and the person kicking the ball for the pass is about 20m away from all this.
This is precisely what VAR is for. In the event of a close call, let the play run through. And if they score, you look at the replay. If it’s offside, you rescind the goal.
Except, it’s not always clear and obvious what an offside is. If someone’s armpit is in front of another person’s armpit when the ball is kicked, is it offside? And I’m not kidding about this. It’s how they disallowed a goal recently in the Premier League.
How ridiculous is that? Firstly, nobody in football talks about an “armpit advantage”. And more importantly, no human referee in the world seeing this in real time would call it for offside.
There’s a solution to this, of course. One instruction given to referees in the video room is that VAR can be used to overturn a decision when there’s a “clear and obvious” error. But an exception is made for offsides.
Pierluigi Collina, possibly the most famous football referee of all time, said when it comes to VAR, “It doesn’t matter if it is 2cm or 20cm, there isn’t a small offside and a big offside”. He’s so wrong.
First, he’s technically mistaken. Jonathan Wilson, celebrated football journalist (and my favourite sports writer) took trouble to sit and determine that between frames on a replay, a sprinting footballer could cover a distance of nearly 14cm – just under half a foot. Because if you can’t be sure where the ball is kicked in that gap of time, you can’t be sure where the player is.
Secondly, in a matter of fine margins, there needs to be discretion.
I know somebody who used to be a magistrate. One day, a cleaner at a supermarket was brought in for stealing fish from work. She pleaded her case: A shop assistant identified the fish as not fit for sale (presumably past its sell-by date) and was going to throw it out. So she decided to take it home.
On her way out, she was searched by security who found the fish on her, and they reported her to the police because, technically, the fish had not been thrown out. So that was considered theft.
These were the facts put in front of my friend. She thought that the cleaner, whose wage was RM400 a month, assumed she wasn’t doing anything wrong, but the law is the law. In the end, the cleaner went to jail. My friend sentenced her to one day behind bars.
We live in a world of rules and laws, but these are man-made. More importantly is why these rules and laws are in place. It’s exceptions in the grey areas that are the tests of humanity. In football, as in life, this should be to reward positive play.