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Are extra officials the answer?

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Five match officials have been used in Uefa experiments in recent months

By Chris Whyatt

Louder and louder grows the cacophony of top Premier League managers crying out for the introduction of video technology.

Sir Alex Ferguson. Arsene Wenger. Mark Hughes. The list goes on...

But, from a quiet backwater of Switzerland, the stance on that hot potato of those with the power to initiate change remains the same.

"We know video refereeing is not the solution," William Gaillard, Uefa's main spokesman and confidante of president Michel Platini, tells BBC Sport without fuss. "Football is based on speed, pace, and rhythm. And if you interrupt the flow of the game, you kill the game's spirit."

So. That's that. Wenger says that failing to use video replays is like refusing to use electricity. If he's right, then football is in blackout.

Yet, with each sinew stretch of every remotely contentious movement by top-flight players or officials becoming ritualistically analysed to death in high, sweat-glistening, 'slow-mo' definition, Uefa openly admit there are serious issues which need to be addressed.

And, at Platini's behest, it is in the midst of a process which could see a radical solution implemented fairly soon. BBC Sport investigates.

FIRST THINGS FIRST, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE PROBLEM?

Where to start? By common consensus, football at the top level - premier European and South American leagues, elite continental competitions (ie the Champions League), and international tournaments - has become much quicker than, say, 15 years ago.

Watch, for example, a match between Arsenal and Chelsea from 1993. The ferocity and commitment will be just the same as it is today. But, crucially, the pace is unrecognisably quicker and the all-round technical ability, to a man, a shade or two higher.

Match officials are slightly overwhelmed by the speed of the (modern) game

William Gaillard
Uefa director of communications

The result? The flow of play, generally, is moving around the pitch at virtually twice the speed it used to (think of an era when every player wore black boots and back-chat was not commonplace).

The upshot? Referees are struggling to keep up, and consequently making mistakes... either through a) being too far away from the incident b) having too much on their plate or c) plain exhaustion.

And these mistakes, picked up upon in a millisecond by up to 30 TV cameras strewn around stadia, are dissected by scandal-hungry studio analysts for global audiences which can stretch to billions.

Uefa, much-maligned as it often is, does at least acknowledge that the game has significantly evolved. The problem which it is now keen to tackle, is that the way matches are officiated has not.

"Match officials are slightly overwhelmed by the speed of the game," admits Gaillard. "It is the last game on a pitch of this size which is refereed by a single man, really.

"You could say there is rugby - but they have video assistance on the tries and the game doesn't move as fast. You have plenty of time with scrums and line-outs that, actually, the referee can pause and position himself in a suitable place on the pitch."


EXAMPLE: In October, Manchester City striker Robinho went down in the penalty area under a challenge from Newcastle defender Habib Beye. To wild protests around St James' Park and from a pundit commenting on the game for live TV, Beye was sent off and a penalty awarded. Referee Rob Styles, whose rough view of the incident is indicated below, later said he got these decisions wrong.

Graphic

IF VIDEO REPLAYS ARE NOT THE ANSWER, WHAT IS?

As an alternative to goal-line technology and "potentially disruptive" instant TV replays, Uefa - initiated by Platini - has been looking at a new refereeing system whereby the referee is helped by four rather than two assistants.

In October and November, trials took place at European Under-19 Championship qualifying tournaments in Slovenia, Hungary and Cyprus, where two extra assistants were situated behind the goal-line at either end of the pitch.

Their responsibility? To alert the referee to fouls and unsporting play (diving) in the penalty area, along with shirt-pulling and touch-and-go corner kicks. Ultimately, to be "an extra pair of eyes".

"The goal is to have one referee with more eyes," explains France legend Platini, who succeeded Lennart Johansson in January 2007. "We do not want to change the game's philosophy - we do not want to have two or three referees."

At the trials the 'goal-line assistants' have been acting purely as assistant referees (formerly known as linesmen) do now - talking to the referee through a radio headset system.

It is a system that respects the history and tradition of the game because the referee remains the supreme commander on the pitch

Uefa president Michel Platini

If the referee wants to ignore or overrule what his assistants say, he is free to do so and nobody is any the wiser.

"One effect is that you have far fewer shirt-pulling incidents or fouls in the goal area which, in the end, favours the flow of the game," insists Gaillard.

Yet one problem is still to be resolved. Where do goal-line assistants stand? If they are not on the field of play, on which side of the goal do they stand? Surely they cannot run around the back of the net from one side to the other as the ball flies around the penalty area?

"We still have to decide which is the best position for the two goal-line assistants," says Gaillard. "In or near the goal area, it has not been determined yet which is the ideal position.

"The extra refs stay on the goal-line but outside of the goal or behind the goal. We need proper analysis."

Another factor propelling the experiment is age. With many top referees - such Pierluigi Collina, who was widely considered to be the best referee in the world - having to retire at the age of 45, Uefa does not want to lose their expertise and experience for good.

"It does not involve a lot of physical strain, they don't move much, but their experience of many years would be very useful in a crucial area just near the goal," says Gaillard.


HOW THE NEW SYSTEM COULD WORK: "The referee is usually behind the action and the goal-line assistant is in front," illustrates Gaillard. "Between the two of them they can exactly see, through their dialogue, what is going on." Had this system been in place for the Robinho incident (mentioned earlier), Styles may have been informed by his 'goal-line assistant' that Habib Beye put in a fair tackle.

Graphic

HOW DID THE TRIALS GO - AND WHAT HAPPENS FROM HERE?

Already the (Uefa-sanctioned) feedback is overwhelmingly encouraging, though Uefa insists it is still early days.

"So far it has been very successful," said former Fifa referee Hugh Dallas, a Scottish member of the Uefa Referee Committee who has taken charge of numerous Old Firm derbies.

"The main aim of it is to assist with more control of the penalty area... and in general to assist the referee, because we know the penalty area is obviously where the most incidents happen.

"What we are doing is really introducing a human camera from behind the goal."

What we are doing is really introducing a human camera from behind the goal

Hugh Dallas
Uefa Referee Committee member

Northern Ireland referee Mark Courtney, who took charge of the Slovakia-Armenia game using the new system, welcomed the experiment.

"The important thing for the match officials is to always make the correct decision," he said.

"With this system, we can quickly receive additional information from the additional referees, which we can consider as part of the thought process to make the final decision."

Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli, who officiated at the Norway-Slovenia game, also said that he was impressed by the additional assistance he had in making penalty-box decisions.

"We had three pairs of eyes on the penalty box, which is very important," he said.

While Gaillard has a note of caution - "they have to adjust a little to the fact they have two more people to communicate with" - he insists that, rather than putting more pressure on referees, it will relieve them of the overwhelming pressure they currently face.

"They think it is definitely a positive contribution to refereeing," he tells BBC Sport.

Thierry Henry
I'd have more referees... it's impossible for one human being to see everything. With offside the linesman has to see when the ball is kicked - and watch if the guy is in line. It's impossible

Thierry Henry

While, ultimately, the experiments are about helping referees - players would also be huge beneficiaries were it to work.

The views of footballers on advancing the game's rules are not as sought after as managers, but some high-profile names have come out in support of moves to improve a situation where refereeing mistakes are happening every week at many grounds.

When asked by Sky Sports in September what he would do if he could change anything about football, Barcelona and France striker Thierry Henry's answer was instant and unequivocal.

"I would have more referees or video replays because it's impossible for one human being to see everything," he said, before alluding to experiments with more officials similar to those which Uefa have just finished trialling.

"The linesman has to see when the ball is kicked and watch if the guy is in line... it's impossible. You're going to make mistakes. So I don't know why they don't put one on one side of the pitch and the other on the other, or use video."

For a player as fast as Henry, one of the most frustrating aspects of the current climate is being wrongly caught offside. The new system would seek to rectify that by allowing the assistant referees (formerly known as linesmen) to concentrate far harder on offside decisions, having relieved them of the burden of much activity in the penalty area.

Uefa is currently writing up the observations from its experiments and will report its findings to the International Football Association Board, which meets in February. It is then down to world governing body Fifa and the IFAB to decide whether the proposed solution is workable. And what happens from there?

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Chris Whyatt

"If they like what they see they will probably call for more experiments," says Gaillard, explaining that Uefa's role was merely to undertake the experiments. "But once the IFAB approves something it's very quick to implement it, usually it comes the next season."

If sanctioned, and it is a relatively big 'if' at present, the introduction of goalline assistants to top-flight football could represent the biggest change since backpasses were outlawed in 1992.

"Football has to open its eyes wider," raged Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson last season after his side had been controversially knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth. "Those running the game are resisting the introduction of technology."

Technology, Ferguson might want to note, is not an option under the rule of Platini. But two extra pairs of wide eyes inches from the most important area of the pitch most certainly are.

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see also
Magpies win Beye red card appeal
23 Oct 08 |  Newcastle
Benitez backs protection by video
21 Mar 08 |  Football
Uefa backs penalty box officials
17 Jan 08 |  Football
Ferguson wants video technology
30 Jan 07 |  Man Utd
Wenger calls for instant replays
22 Oct 06 |  Arsenal
Collina's resignation is refused
30 Aug 05 |  Football
Refs to use new radio technology
23 May 06 |  Premier League
Time for technology?
24 Oct 05 |  Football
Referees want to use technology
24 Oct 05 |  Premier League
Fifa opposes referee video aids
28 Oct 05 |  Football
French to test video refereeing
23 Oct 05 |  Football
World's worst refereeing decisions
05 Jan 05 |  Football
Fifa to try 'penalty box official'
24 Jun 02 |  Other News


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