Soccer is evolving, are you?

BY DAVID ONJILI “Ithought I would like Video Assistant Referee (VAR), but now I am fully against it. Love a cheeky offside goal now and then because it can add some controversy to a dull game,” said Jacob Oliver, a football fan commenting just after video technology was used at the Confederations Cup in Russia last month. These sentiments have been shared by football lovers world over who feel the introduction of video analysis to aid determine officials’ decisions will kill the spontaneity of the game. There has been heavy investment in football lately. The English Premier League boasts a lucrative multibillion-television deal. In Kenya, sports betting firm Sportpesa have been flexing her financial muscle by sponsoring the domestic premier league and also local football giants AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia but also moving to Tanzania to sponsor Young Africans. Playing in the top leagues has become very lucrative and a split wrong decision by a match official can make a club get relegated or promoted or lose out on a major trophy as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger has always complained that poor referee decision cost his side the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona. A team may thus lose or gain financially at the expense of the other and so it is with this in mind that many have seen it wise to adopt technology and other measures that are enjoyed in other sports for the purposes of fairness. The pessimism that officials may be obsolete are unfounded because at the end of the day, the match referee remains the one with the final say during any football match. Portugal versus Mexico at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia was a perfect example. Cristiano Ronaldo takes a free kick that is blocked by the Mexico wall, from a rebound Ronaldo hits the woodwork and his team mate scores from the resultant rebound. As the Portugal players led by Pepe start celebrating, the referee stops them just after about 30 seconds and rules that it was offside. The players protest but replays show that the official was spot on. This experiment started in Japan in 2016 during the FIFA club world cup when Kashima Antlers of Japan met Colombia’s Atletico Nacional. The referee took an on-field review based on information from the VAR that showed that Atletico player, Orlando Berio had tripped Diago Nishi of the Antlers in the penalty area, an incident the referee had not witnessed but was brought to his attention by the technology. These are all pilot projects on the use of VAR and they will be analyzed and recommendations made whether they be adopted as from the year 2018 or 2019 in football matches. The objective is to ensure fairness in games in decision-making and not to affect the essential flow of any football game. How VAR works. The match referee and his two assistants officiate a game in a normal way. The VAR stays under the watchful eye of another match official who keeps monitoring the game and alerts the referee of any game-changing incident. It is upon the match referee to stop play or ignore the alert of the VAR. This is so that the referee remains the final decision maker in any match as FIFA has always championed. Important to note is that the official can change his mind without going to watch the video evidence in simple instances like off sides and handball but if he saw it but was not sure then he can stop the match and go and watch the video that is always on pitch side because he will need interpretation as in the Kashima Antlers versus Atletico Nacional, the interpretation he seeks is whether it was a red card offence or not. 60 minutes stop time Vs 90 minutes running time Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech has been categorical by stating that despite football games being 45 minutes each half only 25 minutes of each half is usually actual playtime. These sentiments have been echoed by retired Italy and Chelsea forward Gianfranco Zola. Interesting enough, the FIFA website under the confederations cup has official statistics indicating that the matches that have been played so far have been 55.3 minutes long, roughly 27.5 minutes each half. There is ongoing debate on whether to eliminate 90-minute matches and replace them with 60 minutes stop time matches. What this means is that the referee stops his clock every time the ball is out of play or a player is on the ground with an injury. The aim is to curb time wasting in the sport. So whether a team decides to engage in kicking the ball out or players falling to waste time, it will not help because any time that the ball is not being played, the clock is stopped. This effectively works in basketball where despite each quarter only being ten minutes, by stopping the clock whenever play is on hold, the officials are able to maximize on play time to the advantage of all the involved teams. According to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), an independent body whose mandate is to guard the laws that govern football, the aim of reducing play time to 60 minutes stop time is to ensure that they improve player behavior and increase respect by eradicating diving and time wasting, to increase fairness in decisions of the game and to maximize play time so games can be enjoyed more. There is also the suggestion that sin bins be introduced, a player who plays unfairly to his opponent is sent to the sin bin for a few minutes then he is allowed back to the game. The time for sin binning a player is to be 10% of the 90-minute match, which translates to 9 minutes. A team cannot substitute a player who has been sin binned and a player who comes on as a substitute cannot be sin binned. This is an interesting move as the same applies to rugby matches and is seen as a way to deter players so that they know that their foul play can cost their team when they have been sin binned. While football lovers will always remember the famous ‘hand of God’ from Diego Maradona at the Estadio Azteca stadium in Mexico City during the semifinal match between Argentina and England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup, a controversial goal that decades later has always been spoken of with admiration from Argentine soccer lovers but with a lot of bitterness to England supporters, we may just now have to start getting used to the fact that such occurrences may be a thing of the past. For the time being, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia continued to evoke debate as the use of VAR intensifies and we must remember that no final decisions have been made to adapt any of the innovations. It is an interesting debate that you should not be left out on. Do you, or do you not love the changes?

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