Implementing video replay at the World Cup


(Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)
(Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)

In the U.S., the NFL was the first to accept the inevitability of human error in sports officiating and take substantial steps to eliminate it. Now, all four major U.S. sports (football, baseball, basketball and hockey) have implemented some form video replay system to greater and lesser extents.

For years, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was reluctant to even consider discussing the use of new-age replay technology to assist soccer match officials. However, only days before the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, Blatter reversed his once adamant stance in opposition of its use, suggesting FIFA could potentially introduce a “coaches challenge” replay system similar to that used in the NFL and MLB.

With the successful introduction of “goal-chip technology” thus far in the 2014 World Cup, the momentum for expanded technological use in the sport of soccer has already begun to roll forward. As more and more national teams fall victim to controversial officiating decisions effecting match results, instant replay gains more and more global support.

Just six days into the 2014 World Cup, there have been at least two examples of clear officiating errors resulting in either a goal, or a goal disallowed, that should not have occurred. With Brazil and Croatia locked 1-1 in the World Cup opening match, Brazil was awarded a penalty kick for a clear non-foul after Brazilian forward Fred took a dive in the box. Neymar buried the ‘PK’, Brazil went up 2-1, and the host nation rode that momentum to a 3-1 victory.

Just one day later, Mexican attacker Giovani dos Santos’ had two goals disallowed; the first after being called offside by a sideline official…while the replay shows otherwise. On the second disallowed goal due to another offside call, the corner kick cross dos Santos headed into the back of the net was redirected by a Cameroonian defenseman, thus making any offside ruling a virtual impossibility. (see below at 0:20 – 2:00)

The arguments for and against instant replay in any sport are plain in face and equal in merit. Traditionalists will argue that human officiating error is as much a part of the game as the actual match play itself. Proponents will cite the flaw in that argument by noting the “traditional” purpose of officials has forever been to make the correct call, and that replay technology only serves as method of ensuring a proper match result.

The answer as to whether FIFA and the game of soccer can benefit from the use of instant replay at the World Cup is undoubtedly…of course they can.

But the follow up question to that answer, and the true heart of the debate as it stands now is…how, and to what extent?

The fundamental nature of soccer’s gameplay is distinct from other major sports, which makes it difficult for FIFA to look outside their own game for examples of how instant replay can be both beneficial and detrimental to the sport. Therefore, FIFA must break down the issues that can be resolved by its use, as well as issues that may arise after its implementation, in order to formulate a replay system that can correct the element of human error without altering the integrity of the sport and nature of the game.

Running game-clock

The first point of issue and fundamental distinction between soccer and all other sports in the debate over the use of instant replay is soccer’s running game clock. Regardless if goal is scored, a foul occurs, a whistle is blown, or the ball goes out of bounds, the forty-five minute clock for each half keeps on ticking. The referee then dictates how much “extra time” will be added at the end of each half to compensate for the time lost in actual gameplay.

There are two potential options FIFA can explore to resolve any delay instant replay may cause. The first option is to actually stop the running clock during instant replay reviews, which would change the structure of the world’s most popular sport in a way that significantly alters the flow of the game.

While this would undoubtedly create financial benefits to both FIFA and sponsors alike by allowing for marketing opportunities during gameplay itself, (as opposed to just before the game, after the game and at the half) it seems unlikely FIFA would be open to such a drastic change in game structure.

The second and more likely option FIFA may consider is to keep the clock running as it normally would and to allow referees to consider the time delay during replay review in their decision for how much extra time will be added at the end of the half.

There’s an argument to be made that time can actually be saved through the use of instant replay. After a controversial call is made on the pitch, minutes of live play can be lost in argument between players and referees. If a play is reviewable by field officials (or a fourth official in a media booth with instant access to the video replay), and the dispute can be resolved in a quick, efficient manner, then instant replay could potentially reduce the aggregate game delay.

Of course the logical question that follows is…how can FIFA do that? We’ll get to that in a little bit.

“Game-changing” plays

The trouble with any decision to implement instant replay into a sport that has never before used replay technology for official assistance is deciding where to draw the line.

What plays should be reviewable and what plays are best left to discretion of the referees trained to make such calls?

Again, the last thing FIFA wants is to alter the flow of the quick-paced game. If every offside or handball call (or non-call) were reviewable, soccer would almost certainly lose its unique element of fluidity. But when an official decision is made (or missed) and the result has significant effect on the result of the match, it seems only fair to both teams that the correct call is made.

Therefore, if FIFA ever decides to instill some form of instant replay, it likely would pertain only to “game-changing plays”.

But what then, may be classified as a game-changing play eligible for review?

Moving on….

Goals/penalty kicks/red cards

The NFL recently changed their instant replay rules, requiring all scoring plays to be reviewed and confirmed regardless of controversy. While FIFA does not need to take such extensive measures to ensure fair play and officiating, they can benefit from taking a page out of the NFL’s playbook.

Not all goals in soccer are controversial and most of them don’t require any review to determine their validity. But for those few instances where an officiating error either rewards a team with an improper goal, or disheartens them by taking a legitimate goal away, the result is unquestionably “game-changing”.

Goals are not easy to come by in soccer, and in the World Cup  a lost goal opportunity that should have been can mean the difference between advancement and elimination.

The same can be said for both penalty kicks awarded and red cards issued. Penalty kicks yield a particularly high percentage opportunity for a goal to be scored. A red card not only puts the team it’s issued to at a significant 11-10 player disadvantage for that game, but also requires them to play without the penalized player for potentially the next two games (if the card issued is a straight red, and not the result of two yellow cards in the same match). 

These are game-changing plays; plays that could change the destiny of a World Cup team in a single moment. Croatia lost the score and momentum after the aforementioned phantom foul in the box against Brazil, and they now need to win out the rest of their group stage matches just to advance.

Portugal played a man down against Germany in a 4-0 loss after the lead official issued a red card for a controversial “head-butt”. As a result, Portugal will be without talented centerback, Pepé, for the remainder of their group stage matches against the U.S. and Ghana.

Should FIFA decide to implement instant replay into the game, they must carefully tailor the rules for review-eligibility, and under the proper scope. That is to say, if FIFA attempted to define with particularity which plays are reviewable, it would create a snowball effect forcing them to restructure their instant replay policy every time a scenario not covered in the specific language of the rule occurs.

Inversely, if the rule is substantially overbroad (i.e. all goals/cards/fouls are reviewable), then FIFA would find themselves back at square one facing potential issues of unnecessary delays and confusion as to what calls should or should not be challengeable. Furthermore, if instant replay was made available for non-game changing calls (i.e. a handball at midfield), the detriments of an instant replay review system in soccer could potentially outweigh its great, and necessary benefits.

So what should FIFA do? How can instant replay be used in a way that both resolves human error and preserves the beautiful game of soccer as the world has come to know and love it?

The solution

Four years ago, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was quoted as saying, “Let it be as it is and lets leave [soccer] with errors. The television companies will have the right to say [the referee] was right or wrong, but still the referee makes the decision – a man, not a machine.”

Why must uncertainty be an accepted part of the game when we have the technology and resources to assure the correct decision is made on the field without undue delay and controversy?

Ironically, the most practical solution for FIFA’s inevitable transition into the technological era of sports officiating would be a similar replay challenge structure used by the “other” football league (NFL); an instant replay structure that Blatter is now apparently seriously considering proposing to the IFAB (International Football Association Board) for the 2018 World Cup.

FIFA will likely remain tight-lipped regarding the specifics of any internal discussions over the use of instant replay in soccer. But given Blatter’s proposition for allowing two managerial challenges per game at FIFA’s Congress in São Paulo prior to the 2014 World Cup, and taking into account FIFA’s historical desire to maintain the tradition and flow of the game, one can predict the extent to which FIFA may actually implement technological assistance in the future.

Under restructured FIFA game rules, it could look something like this…


INSTANT REPLAY: Managerial Challenges

(A) Each team will be allowed two (2) managerial challenges during the course of the entire match, which may be used at any time, in either half and/or together in the same half.

(B) Managerial challenges can be made only in the following scenarios:

  1. When a goal is scored, the opposing team manager may challenge the validity of that goal pursuant to a violation of FIFA gameplay rules of conduct that would otherwise have made the goal invalid to begin with.
  2. When a penalty kick is awarded to one team as a result of a foul inside the keeper box, the opposing team manager may challenge the official call prior to the penalty kick being awarded to determine if the proper foul call was made, and a penalty kick should in fact have been granted.
  3. When a player is issued a red card and sent off the field of play, the manager of the team for which the red card was issued may challenge the foul called and the severity of the official decision, where-after official review, the head referee may either confirm, lessen, or reverse the original penalty issued.

(C) If a team (manager) uses both available challenges prior to the end of the match, successfully overturning the original call on the field on both challenges, that team (manager) will be awarded a third challenge, and may be awarded as many ‘bonus’ managerial challenges thereafter until a challenge is unsuccessful in its merits. 

(D) The use of technological video replay is to be used solely as a means to “assist” the lead official in formulating their eventual decision. No video evidence will be absolute, conclusive, or determinative as to the referee’s ultimate decision thereafter, as the final decision for any call during match play remains in the complete discretion of the lead match official.

…That wasn’t so hard, was it FIFA?

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