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Sport’s Struggle to Find the Right Amount of Technology

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A screen shows a VAR interruption during the group C match between Denmark and Australia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Samara Arena in Samara, Russia, Thursday, June 21, 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

By Michael Pavitt |

I wonder how Sepp Blatter would have reacted if he had been told in 2010 that a decade on from him relenting on his opposition to goal-line technology that a match would be won after the final whistle.

As strange as it sounds, the situation occurred last week when Manchester United were correctly awarded a penalty by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system after the referee had blown for full-time with the score level at 2-2 against Brighton.

The second full-time whistle blowing with Manchester United securing a 3-2 win prompted some to wryly suggest manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær had “improved” upon the concept of “Fergie Time” – the notion the 20-time English champions had benefited under generous injury time when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge.

The main debate from last weekend’s Premier League action centred around the handball rule, which now penalises any handball where the player’s hand/arm is clearly away from the body or raised above the shoulder regardless of intent.

The league has fallen into line with counterparts in Europe who had already been implementing the new rule.

Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson said earlier this week that he was becoming “disillusioned” by the game, adding that he was finding it “very hard to recognize now”. Hodgson’s side had benefited from a handball decision in their victory over Manchester United last month, before falling victim to one in their loss to Everton, neither of which Hodgson considered offences.

“I suppose if there is any anger, and I’m not exactly apoplectic here, it’s because good games of football like this one are being reduced to discussions about penalty decisions, which I’m boldly saying are completely and utterly wrong,” Hodgson said, according to the Evening Standard.

“There will be just as many people out there who will be saying, ‘rules are rules, this is the new rule and you better get used to it’.

“I don’t dispute that. I’m still working in the Premier League, still working in football. My attempts for what they’re worth to prove to people that the rule is wrong, I don’t hold out too much hope that all of a sudden it will be changed back to the way the rule was just because Roy Hodgson says so.

“But I’m not complaining about a decision, I’m complaining about what we have allowed to happen to a rule.”

Newcastle manager Steve Bruce said football has “lost the plot” regarding the handball rule. His side scored a last-minute equaliser from the spot against Tottenham Hotspur last week after they were awarded a penalty due to the ball striking the arm of Eric Dier from close range, despite the defender being unable to see the ball.

The handball rule introduced by the International Football Association Board has been viewed as another consequence of the introduction of VAR to the game.

The head scratching continued when Tottenham and Maccabi Haifa were both awarded penalties for handball in a Europa League qualifier in midweek.

“Both teams have been awarded a penalty under the law that was brought in to simplify handball for the VAR era,” a tweet read. “But VAR is not in use in this game.

“So, if VAR was in use it would probably overturn the handballs that have only been given because of VAR.”

Football’s push for change and implementation of technology seems a long way from the position offered by Blatter a decade ago, with the Swiss official having initially been staunchly against the introduction of the goal-line technology system.

Blatter eventually relented when FIFA were faced with the embarrassment of Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ for England against Germany at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, which was not given despite the ball having clearly crossed the line.

Perhaps he was right in his conclusion that goal-line technology would be good for the game but video replays should be ruled out, as some have made the case that football has become too far removed from the grassroots game.

In direct contrast to football, French Open organisers have been facing criticism for not embracing technology, with several players calling for the introduction of Hawk-Eye.

Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and Norway’s Casper Ruud are among those to push for the tournament to become the final Grand Slam event to introduce the system. Both Shapovalov and Ruud had suffered from controversial line decisions en route to defeats in their singles matches.

Qualifier Martina Trevisan was more fortunate as, despite a controversial overrule which saw her move from a match point to break point down against Coco Gauff, the Italian qualifier was able to hold firm to secure one of the biggest wins over her career by reaching the women’s singles third round.

The French Tennis Federation has remained resistant and keen to maintain the traditional approach despite controversial calls in the past week.

“The FFT is not in favour of replacing umpires with machines,” the FFT told Reuters.

“The traces left by the ball on clay are supposed to allow the referees to validate or invalidate the linesmen’s announcements on their own.

“With the video, the result can be different between the machine and the trace on the clay.

“There is very little intervention by the chair umpire on the court in general.

“Statistics from 800 matches played… show that the track is checked every 1.5 sets on average, which is very little compared to the number of rallies played.”

The debate over technology has not been restricted to video technology and Hawk-Eye systems, with athletics battling the advance in shoes developed by Nike.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge defended Nike’s latest legal version of the Alphafly Next% range, which is claimed to add around four per cent to the average performance in marathon races.

As from April 30 this year, World Athletics ruled ineligible road shoes with soles that were thicker than 40 millimetres, and which contained more than one rigid embedded plate or blade.

The Nike Vaporfly range of shoes, which have been on sale for the last four years, were deemed to be sufficiently in the public range to remain within the rules, despite their claimed advantages in performance terms.

Perhaps a comparison could be made to the battle the International Cycling Union had with technology. The governing opted to split its hour records in 1997 due to technological innovation and established the UCI Hour Record, which restricted competitors to roughly the same equipment used by the likes of Eddy Merckx, as well as the UCI Absolute Record, which permitted modern equipment.

The UCI embraced technology again by merging the records in 2014 with the intention to encourage more riders to take on the challenge, backed by manufacturers of more modern bikes.

Technology has had clear benefits in several sports, but the challenge for sporting bodies seems to be how far they can and should embrace it.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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