ICC vs. FIFA, Part 1

This will be a 2 or 3 part piece comparing these two sporting governing bodies that host the two largest sporting spectacles by viewership in the world. Beware of rantiness!

This seems like as good a time as any to compare these two world bodies of a global sport. Both the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have been at the center of controversy over the last few weeks, albeit for very different reasons. Let’s take a look at each organization’s problems.

FIFA is in the middle of hosting the world’s largest sporting event, at least by viewership. The FIFA World Cup is a global showcase of some of the world’s most well-paid athletes and is a spectacle that is much larger than the globally reaching Olympics. Football/soccer is a game that anyone in the world can play anywhere as long as they have a rotund object that rolls around and the imagination to conjure up goalposts out of items lying around or, well, imagination.

However, FIFA has had it’s share of controversies during this world cup–almost all of them stemming from very poor officiating. Like cricket and most other sports, football uses humans to officiate and referee the game to make sure it’s played fairly and within the rules. Unlike almost every other sport played at an international level, these officials have no benefit of using any technology. This lack of technology has very strongly highlighted the err part of the “to err is human” idiom.

It started out with some very tame offside calls and non-offside calls. Fine, that’s okay since the offside is very difficult to pick out during live coverage, even for a viewer. However, this quickly grew into unfathomable calls (such as the mysterious foul that was called on the US against Slovenia, erasing their game winner) and ones that were downright wrong (such as Lampard’s goal being discounted because 2 yards into the goal was apparently not quite enough). There was also an offside call that went against Mexico against Argentina that could have been used as a precise example when explaining what the offside rule was to a newcomer to the sport.

Anyhow, humans make mistakes and that’s acceptable. What is unacceptable is the lack of accountability both by FIFA and the referees themselves. And the lack of desire to actually move the game into the current decade. Let’s tackle the first issue here–accountability. It took a ball that was yards into the goal being called a no-score that required Sepp Blatter to publicly apologize to the relevant national football associations. The other way Blatter has responded to criticism of his referees is by sending them home. Wouldn’t it just be easier for the referees to apologize themselves and accept that they’ve made a mistake? Or in some cases, explain the thinking behind the call (I’m still looking at that US goal against Slovenia and wondering where the foul was called).

When Jim Joyce missed a call that robbed a pitcher of a perfect game, he apologized publicly in the press conference that followed. He actually felt bad. I’m sure if FIFA referees were provided a mouthpiece to voice their sorrow for missing a call, much of the football-watching fraternity would be appeased. Sure, they’d still be pissed off, but at least they would realize that they were right (and they have been right). Just sitting quietly and pretending a problem doesn’t exist just aggravates it further. Throughout the last few world cups, mistakes have been piling up quicker and quicker. And they’re becoming very evident thanks to technology.

Which brings me to my¬† next point: technology (see that awesome segue?). As I mentioned earlier, FIFA is probably the only global sports organization that has shunned technology to be used to improve the quality of games. And in my opinion, it’s shunning is completely ridiculous. People who are agreeing with FIFA here provide reasons such as “maintain the human element” and “maintain the flow of the game”. Let me pick apart each of these points one-by-one.

The only reason we used the human element in the first place is because we had no way to rewind time. If there were cameras available when the sport was first played, do you think we would still have preferred to pay 4 guys to twiddle their thumbs and run around in short shorts and striped flags? No. The concentration would be to get the call right–after all the rules were designed for a reason. As a viewer of many, many sports, I choose to watch the game because I want to see uber-talented athletes compete against each other. I don’t watch basketball, cricket, football, soccer or any sport to see referees maintain the human element. The players are human–they’re hardly competing using controllers hooked up to a PS3! When watching football, I want to see a side clawing back to even a game or take a late lead or see an inch-perfect through pass beating an offside trap to set up a striker on goal. I don’t want to see the referees lifting their flags, blowing their whistles and shoving plastic cards in players’ faces (although the cautioning system is very warranted and one I think a lot of other contact sports could do with).

Secondly, the detractors of technology claim that technology would affect the flow of the game. Excuse me! Are we watching the same sport? Maybe this argument would have made sense 5-10 years ago when players played a tough game. Now, football is probably the most interrupted game out there. Play constantly stops and starts and stops and starts as the smallest of touches causes players to fly to the ground as if they’ve been laid out by a bareknuckle boxing champion’s knockout punch. I would really like to see a comparison of how many fouls we had at the 1998 World Cup compared to the 2010 World Cup. I think the increase would be several-fold.

Furthermore, when any controversial decision happens, minutes are wasted while players argue with the referee and the referee consults all his help. In fact, many a time, the correct decision has already been displayed to TV viewers before play has restarted. I would argue that going to technology would actually save the time wasted by the arguing and the bickering–since play would actually be reviewed, players could have no complaints because they would obviously have been right/wrong.

So how should one address this problem? I think allowing referees to attend press conferences is a must. FIFA may think it is protecting the referees by preventing them to address the media but I think it is doing a lot of harm to their image and the referees image. While referees who make such poor decisions in such a huge public light are always going to have it follow them around for the rest of their career, the least they could do is allow an asterisk to a note that says that the official in question actually admitted he was wrong and was sorry.

As for technology, I think it needs to be slowly inducted into the game. I’m not for the whole microchip idea in the shoes and the ball to determine offsides–that seems overly unnecessary. I think technology should be used in two cases: (1) whenever a goal has been scored whose validity is called into question (offside, goal-line decisions, fouls, etc.) and (2) when a player has been fouled in the box to determine if a dive was involved. There’s no need to spend a bunch of money developing goal line technology or stationing officials all over the field. Taking these two steps combined with the TV replays already available would help the game significantly and not waste too much time on the field. A fifth official would simply be reviewing the TV evidence while the game is progressing and if they see a bad call, just walkie into the main official on the pitch.

Cricket has suffered from similar problems for ages. For a game that is several centuries older than football, I think the ICC has done a great job in inducting technology into the game. In the next part of this series, I’ll look at how the ICC has approached technology with regards to the international game and where they have gone right or wrong. Finally, I’ll take a look at the political aspect of this discussion, since that’s the issue that has plagued the ICC recently.