Michel Foucault, Meet FIFA's No Instant Replay

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/27/2010 07:09:00 PM
When I was a wee lad and didn't know better, I liked watching "pro wrestling" with its wacky, deliberately staged antics. My favourite moment would be when, while the referee wasn't looking, one wrestler would grab a folding chair and slam it into his opponent. When the referee's attention returned to the action after some distraction--a tag team partner arguing with the referee, a player's manager blocking the referee's view, or whatever--the opponent hit with the chair would invariably be flat on his back and pinned for the three count. Ting, ting, ting! An instant "controversial" decision designed to elicit heated discussion among commentators and fans alike.

On the face of it, there is no explicable reason as to why instant replay is still not sanctioned by FIFA despite several football associations, players, owners, and who else have you clamouring for the technology. During the qualifying stages for the World Cup, France famously "defeated" Ireland via a Thierry Henry handball. The pathetic display by the French team during the World Cup itself only soured matters further. Today, we had two more sorry incidents that could've been resolved easily with instant replay. First, England's Frank Lampard had a fine strike that was disallowed since the officials weren't paying attention (in true "pro wrestling" fashion). Insofar as it would've tied the game 2-2, it certainly was a turning point in the game. Second, Mexico was incensed when the first goal by Argentina's Carlos Tevez was allowed to stand when he was clearly offside.

Now, any reasonable person would think FIFA President Sepp Blatter couldn't stop this avalanche of criticism regarding what were clearly poor decisions. In terms of procedural justice, it makes little sense. Yet, in the wake of the Thierry Henry handball incident, FIFA decided otherwise:
The International Football Association Board has ruled out the use of goal-line technology and video replays. "The door is closed. The decision was not to use technology at all," said Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke [my emphasis]. The decision was reached after watching presentations of two systems, Cairos - a chip inserted in a ball, and Hawk-Eye - used in tennis and cricket.

The Football Association and Scottish Football Association had both voted in favour of further experiments. FA chief executive Ian Watmore was outvoted after the Irish FA and Welsh FA voted in line with Fifa. "In the end it came down to a difference of opinion about whether you believe the future of football involves technology or not," said Watmore. "We had supported the idea of investigating experiments into the use of technology on goal-lines and we would like to have seen it. But some of the arguments were very powerful and persuasive and we have to accept them."

Fifa has been under increasing pressure to use some form of technology to eliminate mistakes which are highlighted by TV replays.
As BBC commentators Gary Lineker & Co. noted afterwards, instant replays are banned from being shown on the stadium screens while matches are underway as to not provoke fan unrest over controversial refereeing decisions. However, during the Argentina versus Mexico game, a replay inadvertently showing Tevez clearly offside raised passions to the point that Mexican players were positively livid at halftime.

My French flatmate probably has it right: bad decisions are allowed to stand not in spite of technology, but because of deliberate design. Now, some French tend to be utterly cynical people who hold much in contempt (like "reality"), hence the entire postmodern genre that stands in stark contrast to the often dangerous naivete of the Americans.

If you go by Michel Foucault, disuse of instant replay is akin to enabling "tactical polyvalence": Powerful folks like FIFA honcho Blatter would rather retain the randomness of human errors of judgement not because the technology doesn't exist to make better informed decisions, but to make things livelier--to give commentators, fans, and the rest of the circus maximus that is world football something to fume about long after the action on the field is finished. Doing so can build rivalries. The storied England versus Germany one traces much of its history to the disputed goal of the 1966 final by Geoff Hurst. Today, many wags noted that England's goal being counted in 1966 was levelled out by today's judgment that a clear goal wasn't so.

And so the storied rivalry continues as counterfactuals that can never be proven will linger. Would the game have turned out differently had Lampard's clear goal been allowed to stand? Perhaps the English side would've continued in better spirits and not have felt hard done by, leading to an eventual victory. Could've, should've, would've. Regret is the stuff of high drama. Or, you can take the postmodern interpretation: perhaps Blatter foresaw the spectacle arising from such debacles. Imbibing pro wrestling "hit 'em with a chair" logic, the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has admitted to (quite successfully) pretending that the ball didn't go in by gathering it quickly and giving it the boot.

Surely, future fan interest on both sides will be driven by the build-up of these incidences. For, the bumbling referees without instant replay are meant to show incompetence like distracted referees in pro wrestling. That is, they play the villains others love to hate. And, in so doing, they create more perceived slights that must be avenged during future events that promise atonement--or, in the continued absence of instant replay, more controversial decisions meant to last a lifetime.

Final verdict after 90 minutes (+ stoppage time): Foucault = cynical, brilliant. Blatter = cynical, brilliant. Heck, WWE = cynical, brilliant, It's good marketing, pure and simple!

29/6 UPDATE: Or maybe not. Blatter has apologized to the English and Mexican football associations and seeks to reopen investigation of instant replay when FIFA reconvenes in July.

29/6 UPDATE 2: The text of the initial ruling maintaining the disuse of instant replay does indeed highlight Blatter's idea that controversy is part of the package in addition to quite frankly dubious assertions about the cost of introducing instant replay:
The human aspect: no matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else? It is often the case that, even after a slow-motion replay, ten different experts will have ten different opinions on what the decision should have been.

Fans love to debate any given incident in a game. It is part of the human nature of our sport [my emphasis]...

The financial aspect: the application of modern technologies can be very costly, and therefore not applicable on a global level. Many matches, even at the highest level, are not even televised. For example, we have close to 900 preliminary matches for the FIFA World Cup™, and the same rules need to be applied in all matches of the same competition. The rules need to be the same for all association football matches worldwide.

The experiments conducted by companies on technology in football are also expensive. The decision of the IFAB, after careful consideration and examination of studies conducted in recent years, to give a clear answer on technology in football is also positive in this regard as these companies will now not spend significant amounts of money on projects which in the end will not be implemented.