FIFA’s video replay system requires further examination

SUITA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 14: Match Referee, Viktor Kassai, awards a penalty to Kashima Antlets during the FIFA Club World Cup Semi Final between Atletico Nacional and Kashima Antlers at Suita City Football Stadium on December 14, 2016 in Suita, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)
SUITA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 14: Match Referee, Viktor Kassai, awards a penalty to Kashima Antlets during the FIFA Club World Cup Semi Final between Atletico Nacional and Kashima Antlers at Suita City Football Stadium on December 14, 2016 in Suita, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images) /

FIFA’s first foray into video replay could have gone better.

Oh, FIFA. One day you will get through a tournament without controversy.

The world’s top footballing organization was hoping that last week’s Club World Cup would go off without a single hitch. The hope was that the tournament meant to crown the top club team in the world (please, no snickering) could be done relatively quiet without an instance of hooliganism, allegations of match fixing, a terrible pitch, or even a case of an official being arrested for racketeering. Perhaps the Club World Cup is not on the same level as the World Cup but it is still a tournament of some importance and it would be a feather in the league’s cap to make it through unscathed.

Sadly those dreams were snapped in the semifinals of this year’s tournament after a controversial video replay call awarded Kashima Antlers a penalty over Atletico Nacional. Although the call in the first half was certainly not the decisive call in the match (Nacional did allow two more goals in the match) it did bring up a very difficult subject in video replay.

A tool that is quite widely used in other sports, video replay has been sparsely used in the beautiful game. It is a subject that has been discussed widely over the years both within FIFA and in the general public. What is interesting is that very little has been done about it. Until now.

So with the FIFA World Club Cup using video replay the subject has changed from an if to a when and a how. Given the high-level investment going into club and national sides it seems unlikely that these individuals will be satisfied with results that are determined on the pitch. There is far too much money involved to fully trust three or four individuals on the field. If baseball, who hold their traditions more tightly than any other game, can have a change of heart so too can soccer.

But like baseball, it is not as simple as just rolling out the technology and everything will be honky dory. The biggest concern is the gray areas of each games rule-book. Those opposed to bringing in replay in baseball have fought hard against having balls and strikes reviewed with the reason being that calls can be subjective. Soccer has a similar problem. Issues like handballs, fouls, offsides, and diving at times can be so murky that it is almost impossible to navigate what is legal and what is not (particularly with handballs where one has to measure ‘intent’.)

The hope is that with video technology that it will make referees lives easier. But FIFA would be very careful to avoid the pitfalls that American football has made in diagnosing catches. With so many subjective calls being made in a soccer match such a process could alter how we consider something such as an offside should be documented.

There is also the question of how this technology would be rolled out. As opposed to other sports leagues that are often limited to 1-2 countries or a finite amount of cities, FIFA is a very large governing body. It is also a very economically diverse body with many countries living above the poverty line and many living under it. Considering that some of their members have trouble paying their players and securing kits it seems almost possible for them to install video replay cameras in every single venue. It would also be near impossible to do this for every World Cup Qualification match and it is not necessarily a policy that could be implemented for select matches.

At a club level this could also be a challenge. Again, while most top-level leagues could do this without a problem the lower divisions will still struggle to provide this.  Let’s take a look at American soccer as an example. While the likelihood that MLS could undertake such an operation is high, the odds that say the NASL, USL, or NPSL is much lower.

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It boils down to being a cost issue for teams and a capability issue for the league. Many teams in the lower divisions across the world struggle to provide television coverage of games. To ask them to provide additional footage and either a booth or the capability to stream video live back to league headquarters (like the NHL does) may be beyond their means.

Now FIFA could require video technology use only for football associations that can afford it and for major tournaments. While this circumnavigates the cost issue it puts referees and officials who don’t have experience with such technology at a disadvantage. One could see the scenario of a referee entering a World Cup match with little to no experience in working with video officials and issues arising from that. This issue may be an easy fix (more training hours prior to the tournament, making them travel to countries where it is being used, etc.) but it is still an issue that would need to be looked at.

The intent behind video replay is not bad. Referees should be given every tool available to make the right call, no matter the delay in time. It is the responsibility of FIFA though to make sure that those tools are accurate, that they do not alter the rules of the game, and that they can be implemented in an efficient and effective manner.