Alan Kelly: Like it or not, video technology is coming to football

The former League of Ireland referee gives his take on the changes to his profession

A video technology official sits pitchside during the Fifa Club World Cup match between Kashima Antlers and Auckland City at International Stadium, Yokohama. Photo: Shaun Botterill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

A video technology official sits pitchside during the Fifa Club World Cup match between Kashima Antlers and Auckland City at International Stadium, Yokohama. Photo: Shaun Botterill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

 

Football is, as they say, about opinions and as I know well from personal experience some of the strongest tend to be about how the game is refereed, but the game is evolving and so too is the role of the match official.

  Over time, changes in the laws of the game have always determined how football is refereed and played and that process of evolution continues. There was a time when if you asked me if I was in favour of the introduction of technology to my job, I probably would have said ‘no’ based on my ‘traditionalist’ view on how the game should be refereed.

Having had the opportunity to experience the benefit it can have on the game, however, my perspective has shifted somewhat and I would say I can currently see both outright positives as well as potential for improvements to the changes being considered but the process is, I think, an ongoing one with lessons being learned as we go.

 And it’s worth remembering that we have already come a long way. In recent years, there have been increased calls for the introduction of technology to the game with some giving the impression they think it can right all of football’s wrongs, so to speak. Until recently, the people who make the decisions were reluctant but that changed when football’s lawmakers approved the introduction of ‘Goal Line’ technology.

  It didn’t happen overnight. It went through many years of development, trials, testing and protocol before it arrived in the form we see now. Genuine concerns were raised and discussed; about time delays, for example, and how it would impact the natural flow of the game.

  But we now have a game where, through technology, the referee has an immediate answer as to whether the ball has crossed the line or not. Has it had a detrimental effect on the flow of the game? No. Has it had an impact on the game in general, though? I would say yes; it has in that it has taken away the debate of ‘did it or did it not cross the line?’ The decision is factual and not one of opinion.

There have been increased calls for the introduction of technology to the game with some giving the impression they think it can right all of football’s wrongs, so to speak

  This brings us onto the current topic of whether ‘video replay’ would have a similarly positive impact on the game.

Opinions differ and I can both sides of the argument.

  The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has recently given its approval to the development of a protocol for ‘video replay’. Again, it has gone through the various phases of development, trialing and testing in a number of countries.

  I have been fortunate enough to be involved in its development here in the US. Towards the end of 2016, history was created in a United Soccer League (USL, essentially a second tier league here in the US, below MLS) game in New York, where the first Video Assistant Referee (Var) was used in a live game. It was subsequently used in three other USL games before the completion of the season. It has also been tested in other countries such as the Netherlands (in the Dutch Cup) and at the 2016 FIFA World Club Cup in Japan. In eight games, there were two decisions that required on field reviews.

  Vars are currently used to review goals, penalty kicks, red cards and mistaken identity scenarios. Following those games and their subsequent findings, IFAB has continued to work on developing its protocol for how best the introduction of the Var role will impact the game in a positive way.

  As I have sat through our various training and development sessions, I have wondered how the role of the Var would have assisted me in the past with some big game decision that were, on reflection, incorrect. A couple immediately spring to mind and based on the technology currently in use and the protocol that we are following, those decisions could have been corrected in approximately 10 seconds. As play was stopped at those times, the games’ natural flow would have been unaffected.

Alan Kelly from Cork has been voted MLS Referee of the Year for the last two seasons in a row. Photo: Getty Images
Alan Kelly from Cork has been voted MLS Referee of the Year for the last two seasons in a row. Photo: Getty Images

  Having said that, there is the potential for some decisions to take a little longer to finalise. One of the decisions reviewed in Japan in December took close to two minutes to review from the time the incident occurred to a decision being given. On that occasion, clearly, the natural game flow was interrupted.

  The Var is always watching and checking various different camera angles, behind the scenes so to speak, but will only interject and inform the referee if a ‘clear and obvious error’ has occurred with any of the situations mentioned above.

  Throughout our training we have been instructed to referee the game the same way and not to use the Var as a ‘safety net’. This is vital and is in tune with keeping the games natural flow in mind. It’s important to note that this is still a trial and very much a work in progress. 

  Work will continue behind the scenes to ensure that when the Var is introduced to the professional game, it will be done with the best interests of the game in mind, maintaining and protecting football’s natural flow with ‘minimum interference but maximum benefit’. Football has evolved over the course of time, but make no mistake about it, when video replay is introduced to the game, it will be the single biggest change to affect the game we know and love.

Having been lucky enough to be involved in this process and to be exposed to what technology can add to the game, I’ve learned to embrace it and look at the positives, of which there are many.

Football has evolved over the course of time, but make no mistake about it, when video replay is introduced to the game, it will be the single biggest change to affect the game we know and love

  We have seen from other sports, though, that it is not perfect; it has, at times, proven to be inconclusive or even incorrect and however much fine tuning is done there will inevitably be occasions when people differ over whether the right call was made.

  So video replay is coming to football all right, but there will always be opinions…

*Alan Kelly, from Cork, is a former League of Ireland referee who served on both the Uefa and Fifa panels for a number of years. Having moved to the United States in 2014 he has been voted the MLS’s Referee of the Year for the last two seasons.

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