The Argument: Against Goal Line Technology
Escape To Victory was on TV at Christmas. It usually is. It’s basically a terrible film but it’s full of Ipswich Town players from the early 1980s; like many Ipswich fans, I can recite entire chunks of the film’s dialogue off by heart, a skill which comes in very handy when you’re trying to clear your living room of drunk people at the end of a party.
In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a World War II drama in which some prisoners of war, led by Michael Caine, form a football team and are persuaded to take on the German national team in what becomes a Nazi propaganda exercise in Paris. They plan to escape through a tunnel in the dressing-room at half-time, aided by the French Resistance, but despite being 4-1 down, and playing with ten men because Pele has broken his arm, against a team of super-fit Nazis, they change their minds and decide to sacrifice their long-sought liberty when Russell Osman shouts “hang on, we can win this!”, and then they go back for the second half after all. It’s all very realistic.
Anyway, despite being a long way from the finest work of the film’s legendary American director John Huston, the point about Escape To Victory is that it’s based on the notion that even in a POW camp, starving and desperate, people will still play football. And that’s the bit of the film that does make sense, because all you need for a game of football is a bit of space, something to kick around, and some makeshift goalposts. And this, as the aforementioned Pele was heard to observe in one of his more lucid moments, is what makes it the world game, because whether in the favelas of Rio or the scrublands of Africa or on Hackney Marshes or at the Bernabéu, it’s the same game. One ball, two teams, two goals.
Except it isn’t quite, not any more, because someone has decided that football at the top level in England is Too Important to be subject to the same vagaries of chance and split-second judgement that have served the game perfectly well for the last 150 years, and has brought in goal-line technology. The argument for this is that referees and assistant referees sometimes Get Things Wrong, so if there’s some form of gadgetry which will help them Get It Right, then that must be A Good Thing.
Well my argument is that it’s not a good thing. Firstly because it drives a fundamental wedge between English football at its top level, and everything below that. Last season, Bournemouth weren’t important enough to merit such investment in the accuracy of decisions which affected them, but now they are. And next season they might not be again. Clubs at the top level have always enjoyed, in the main, better training facilities than those below them, more dieticians and fitness experts and specialist coaches and so on, but until goal-line technology came in, once Manchester City went out onto the pitch they were playing exactly the same game as Millwall, Mansfield, or Maidenhead. Now they’re not, and yet another connection between the elite and the grass roots is lost forever.
Of course, you could argue that any such connection has long been a mythologised one anyway – when players at the top of the Premier League are earning upwards of £250k per week, what on earth do they have in common with the huffing, puffing, hungover types who wheeze around their local park playing Sunday League matches? But this is exactly the point – until technology came into the Premier League, the likes of Yaya Toure and Eden Hazard were subject to exactly the same random acts of fate and incompetence as anyone else who pulls on a pair of shinpads at the weekend, which was a brilliantly democratising and sometimes hilarious thing. And now it’s gone.
Furthermore, the argument for the use of technology in football goes, these decisions are worth gazillions of pounds. A wrongly allowed or disallowed goal could cost someone their place in the Premier League, or a top-four finish. To which my counter-argument would be – so what? Football is a game of speed and spontaneity and chaos. Sometimes, millions of pounds will be won or lost because a referee gets something wrong, or because a dog runs onto the pitch, or because a defender gets confused by a balloon that’s drifted in from the crowd. Ain’t that brilliant? It might not be perfectly fair, but, you know, what the hell? That’s the game we all fell in love with, and if that’s too random or unpredictable for investors to handle, they should take their filthy petro-dollars elsewhere. And in any case, if anyone’s primary consideration is how much money a game is worth, rather than the sheer excitement of the pursuit of sporting glory, then they’ve missed the point.
I love cricket for more-or-less the opposite reasons that I love football. Cricket is about precision, about getting the exact piece of stitching to bounce on exactly the right part of the pitch at exactly the right speed to deceive the batsman. This is enthralling in a completely different way. Technology works in cricket for that reason: that it is about getting things exactly correct, so the lengthy deliberation about an LBW decision has become a part of the game’s protracted drama.
Technology doesn’t work in football because it makes the game into an odd hybrid: a spectacle which is 99% about human achievement, human judgement and human error, and 1% about precision engineering, as though someone was trying to build a cyborg but got bored after robotising a couple of toes. What technology does do is feed the myth that a football match is an event worthy of deep, furrow-browed and serious consideration, rather than a spectacle to be enjoyed, a live-action drama with a supporting cast of thousands.
So that’s my argument. And if you don’t agree with me, I’ll come round to your house and recite lines from Escape To Victory at you until you do.