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After weekend of woe, FIFA stands firm against video replay

Lucio of Brazil runs with the ball during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Brazil and Chile at Ellis Park Stadium on June 28, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

It happens every few months: Another horrible blunder by a soccer referee, another uproar of recriminations, and, inevitably, another decision by FIFA to reject the obvious solution of video replays.

Now, after perhaps the most egregious day of refereeing errors in years, there is mounting pressure on FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, to take action. Yet so far, the notoriously conservative organization is stubbornly sticking to its technophobic stance.

The baffling obstinacy by FIFA has left soccer lagging far behind most other sports in the world - including hockey, which has used video technology to verify controversial calls in the NHL since 1991.

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Basketball, football, tennis, rugby, horse racing and cricket are all using video technology. Even Major League Baseball, one of the most resistant to reform, is now using video replays to review the accuracy of home-run calls. Yet soccer clings to its traditions, even as fans and players fume.

The latest furor began last Sunday, when a clear goal by England against Germany was nullified by a Uruguayan referee who failed to notice Frank Lampard's shot had bounced nearly a metre over the goal line. The goal would have tied the match 2-2 and changed the tempo of the crucial knockout match. Instead, Germany went on to win 4-1, leaving England furious.

If that wasn't enough, another key match was marred by another refereeing blunder just four hours later. An Italian referee allowed a goal by Carlos Tevez of Argentina, even though he was offside, and Argentina went on to beat Mexico 3-1.

In both cases, within seconds, television replays showed with absolute certainty the referees were wrong.

A day later, FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot refused to discuss the issue. He offered no hint that FIFA will revise its long-standing opposition to video technology, despite the latest fiascos.

"We obviously will not open any debate," he told the daily media briefing on Monday.

But others were quick to speak out. A host of critics - including media commentators, players and coaches - said FIFA's recalcitrance is bringing soccer into disrepute.

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"What is at stake is the credibility of the game," Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz said, joining the chorus of calls for video replays.

FIFPro, an organization representing professional soccer players around the world, said it was "unacceptable" for FIFA to keep rejecting video technology.

"We can do it, the football world wants it and yet it is still being thwarted," said Tijs Tummers, a spokesman for the players' group.

Nobody can accuse FIFA of rushing into a hasty decision. In a sport whose most famous moments are often linked to refereeing blunders, the organization has been aware of the fallibility of its system for decades. Think back to the notorious "Hand of God" goal by Diego Maradona - an illegal handball that helped Argentina to eliminate England in the 1986 World Cup. Or Geoff Hurst's controversial extra-time goal for England against West Germany in 1966, which allowed England to win its only World Cup title, even though studies later showed the ball did not fully cross the goal line.

FIFA has been ponderously studying the use of video technology for years without a decision. There is no shortage of research, experiments, studies and options. But in each case, the governing body has insisted soccer must have a "human face" - even if this guarantees that errors will continue.

"Let it be as it is and let's leave football with errors," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in 2008, after FIFA abandoned one of its most extensive experiments with technology and video replays.

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In its experiment in 2007 and 2008, FIFA took a long look at two options: the "Hawk-Eye" system of multiple cameras, which is currently used in tennis and cricket; and a high-tech "smart ball" with microchips implanted in it to determine when the ball has fully crossed the line. But both methods were rejected.

Two years earlier, FIFA experimented with a radio-based system, with 12 sensors positioned around the pitch to determine when the ball crossed any line. That, too, was deemed unsuitable.

Last November, FIFA was under the gun again, following a controversial handball goal by Thierry Henry that eliminated Ireland and allowed France to advance to the World Cup. After the match, the French player admitted his decisive goal was the result of a handball. Yet at its executive meeting a few weeks later, FIFA again flatly rejected the use of video replays - although it said it would monitor Europe's experiment with adding two officials behind the goals at each match to verify goals.

In March, after the latest FIFA discussion of the issue, Blatter issued a statement to explain why the governing body was rejecting video technology. He argued video replays would be too costly, too disruptive to the flow of the game and too much of a threat to the "simplicity and universality" of the game.

But his main argument, apparently, is the "human aspect" must be preserved in soccer, because differing opinions are essential to the sport.

"Fans love to debate any given incident in a game," Blatter said. "It is part of the human nature of our sport."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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