I have a query.

After Mathieu Flamini’s heroics in the North London derby, how did you eat your mandatory portion of humble pie? I had mine with some double cream. It was delicious. We all doubted him, and he showed us all up. Well played, sir. *doffs cap*

The reason I ask this is because a lot of us football fans pride ourselves on our knowledge of the game, or at least what we believe to be our level of knowledge to be. It’s why a lot of conversations between fans often turn into a full-fledged debate, because both sides are just as keen to explain they’re right and how the other side is wrong.

Football, at its core, is a subjective game. The scoreboard is only relevant to the winning side, and the referee is only relevant to the team on the receiving end of a questionable call. The final whistle does nothing to stop the two teams arguing over who is better, it just signals an end to the evidence that can be added to the debate by both sides.

This is why the events at Stamford Bridge, and the subsequent rulings by the FA, were so fascinating. The result, a 2-0 win to the home side, was rendered virtually irrelevant by the arguments over what Diego Costa and Gabriel did, and more importantly, didn’t do. It’s not like the result was a meaningless one to begin with, a win was crucial to keeping Chelsea’s fading title ambitions alive. Yet for the days following the result, nobody cared about that.

All that was important, was to point out how much of an unlikeable scrote Diego Costa can be when playing football, and how seemingly implausible it was that the officials in charge never saw any of his antics. I had seen Costa hit out at Laurent Koscielny. So had the fans in the away end at Stamford Bridge. So too had many millions of people watching at home. But the officials? They didn’t see a thing.

Inevitably, this led to a new call for instant replay to be brought into the game. Every time we see something go unpunished by the official, the shouts of ‘Well if the ref had access to TV replays, he would have seen what I just saw, and sent him off!’ go up. But there’s one crucial flaw to this argument: subjectivity.

When Gabriel was sent off, Arsenal fans immediately complained about a conspiracy against them, led by the FA. When Gabriel’s sending off was withdrawn, Chelsea fans immediately complained about a conspiracy against them, led by the FA. Apart from decisions that are based on lines, i.e goals, offside, whether a decision should be a corner or a goal kick etc, everything else is completely subjective, depending on the person viewing it.

Fans like to expect decisive decisions from officials, but when there is so much scope for debate in so many decisions that an official might have to make during a game, where would you draw the line when it comes to using replays for those debatable calls? One person’s foul tackle is a another person’s fantastic challenge, the only important thing that replay will determine is what the person watching the replay thinks of it. It won’t guarantee that a decision is changed, it’ll just give time for someone else to look at it. After that, anything could happen.

Sports like rugby and American football are often cited as examples of TV replay working well in sport, but the examples given to emphasize this don’t apply to football. If anything, the goal-line technology employed by Premier League clubs at the moment is far superior, primarily because it only interrupts play when a goal is scored. Football doesn’t have the same amount of stoppages in play that the prior mentioned sports have, so the opportunities to go back and look at a contentious issue are far fewer.

It’s not like the use of TV replays are an unqualified success in rugby or NFL either. In rugby, more and more time is being spent by referees referring even the most obvious of decisions to the television match official (or TMO for short) just to be on the safe side. Whilst a desire to get everything right is understandable, the first half of the opening game of the Rugby World Cup lasted a whopping 52 minutes, which left many fans hugely frustrated at the lack of action, and managers just as frustrated as their players cooled down and became more susceptible to muscle injuries.

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In the NFL, the issue isn’t with the stoppages in the game, it’s with how the game is now being officiated. As we all know, events look immensely different in slow motion as opposed to full speed, little details become magnified and small deviations look far clearer, leading to added weight being given to what in essence are minor events during a play.

The problem with this is that the simplest of game mechanics are now horrendously complicated. Take something as simple as catching a ball, for example. Picture someone catching a ball. Now picture someone dropping a ball. It’s pretty easy to determine one from the other, right? In one instance the ball hits the ground, and in the other it doesn’t. Simple.

Not in the NFL, it isn’t. Here’s a checklist for a catch to be determined as a ‘catch’:

  • Did the receiver have two feet in the field of play when he caught the ball? (A hand counts as a foot, a knee or buttock counts as two feet)
  • Did the receiver maintain possession of the football as he hit the ground?
  • Did the receiver use the ground to control the ball as he fell?
  • Did the receiver make a ‘football move’ after controlling the football, i.e turn forward or stretch to get the ball over the goal line.

All of that, just to see if a ball was caught. You’d think that with all these criteria to work with, it’d be easy to tell the difference between a ‘catch’ and a non-catch. So have a look at the GIF below and tell me if Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant caught this pass.

That’s a catch. Bryant jumps up, catches the ball, takes two steps forward, falls and lunges for the goal line before hitting the ground. The ball bobbled in his hand as he hits the ground, but he still has it in his control. And before you say I’m biased, I support the team in green and even I think that’s an amazing catch. But the officials thought otherwise. They said it wasn’t a catch, somehow determining that Bryant didn’t make a ‘football move’. Dallas didn’t score after this and lost the game. It was a knockout game as well. That call ended their season.

When such a simple decision like whether someone caught a ball or not can be turned into a debate that only those with a law degree can fully engage in, how do you imagine a replay of Gabriel’s ‘kick’ on Diego Costa will be interpreted? Was there intent? Was there contact? Was he provoked? Was there enough evidence to say it was kick and not a flick? The debate would be endless, and very little of it could be proved as a matter of fact. Replays can show a lot of things, but it can’t show whether a player did something deliberately or not.

That, in essence, is why TV replays are not the answer to what happened at Stamford Bridge. It’s impossible to take the subjective decisions out of football, no matter how much we argue over them. Consistency will never occur when there are different people making decisions from week to week, and the only thing TV replays will ensure is that an increased number of different people are involved in the decision making.

Are referees perfect? Of course not. They’re only human. But as bad as one person’s decision can be, adding more people into the process is only asking for trouble.