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Friday, January 23, 1998 Published at 07:47 GMT


Scientists say they know why blinking refs get it wrong
image: [ The ball is quicker than the eye ]
The ball is quicker than the eye

Scientists in Spain say they have discovered what football fans all around the world have always suspected: referees cannot see properly.

Dr Jaime Sanabria, from the Department of Otoneurology at the Fundacion Jimenez Diaz in Madrid, found referees and linesmen often get decisions wrong because their eyes just cannot keep up with the action.

He says the phenomenon is best highlighted by the number of offside decisions which match officials get wrong, even if they are up with the play.


Dr Sanabria says because of the way the eye focuses a time-delay occurs as the most sensitive part of the retina tries to pick up images.

This means officials may see two players as being several metres apart when, in fact, they are level at the time their position is gauged.

The difference between a player being offside or running clear to score a great goal is a fraction of a second and the human eye just cannot keep up with the frenetic speed of the game.

Dr Sanabria says linesmen, now known as assistant referees, will often "see" an attacker and defender running several feet apart when in fact they were level at the time of the pass.

The team's conclusions were published on Friday in the medical journal The Lancet.

Tiny eye adjustments

The trouble stems from tiny adjustments called saccadic eye movements (SEM) which guide peripheral images on to the most sensitive part of the retina.

It can take these movements 250-300 milliseconds to bring the image to this spot, known as the fovea.

Dr Sanabria worked out that in that time an attacker and defender who started on the same horizontal line could be up to 4.5 metres (five yards) apart.

To be onside an attacking player must have a defender level with or between him and the goal at the moment the ball is passed to him.

There have been increasing calls in recent years -- especially in Britain -- for referees and linesmen to be able to call on action replay cameras to check whether key decisions were correct.

Human error

Peter Willis, president of the Referees Association, said: "Contrary to what many people think, referees are not stick-in-the-muds.

"This is something that until today I'd not heard about, but everything should be looked at, it's common sense.

"If any technical aid can be found that might help, FIFA will look at it.

"We'll have linesmen running around with spacesuits on one day, I'm sure. But they'll still get it wrong at times. There will always be human error, because we are human."

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