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Sepp Blatter was just trying to save the butterflies

Friday 16th December 2016
On Monday, I wrote a piece centred on Rob Styles' performance in Sunday's match between Manchester United and Tottenham at Old Trafford, illustrating how the rules of the game can sometimes make life difficult for referees. Wednesday evening saw United at Selhurst Park to meet Crystal Palace and it witnessed match official Craig Pawson make life difficult for himself

A red card not given, an offside goal from a handball awarded, a penalty for handball denied, and a goal denied for a dubious offside, later, Pawson not only had his Wiki page hacked, he'd singlehandedly made an ironclad case for the use of replay technology in football. Funnily enough, several hours earlier in Japan, FIFA had used replay technology for the first time in a meaningful match. That is if you're willing to consider the Club World Cup meaningful. And Science would have us believe life is just a series of fantastic but completely random coincidences. Right.
The football god's first tapped on Pawson's right shoulder in the thirty-ninth minute, disrupting a train of thought which should have concluded Marcos Rojo's two-footed flying tackle directed towards Wilfried Zaha was perfect technique for launching a Winter Olympics bobsled run, but a dangerous use of excessive force that puts another player's health and safety at risk in football, therefore demanding a red card be assessed.

Then they blew in his right ear just as Zlatan Ibrahimović swung his arm, knocking the ball into Paul Pogba's path so the Frenchman could score the match's opening goal. Pogba also looked to be offside. For the moment, though, the football gods kept all criticism focused on Pawson rather than his linesman, permitting Joel Ward to deflect the pass slightly towards Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey with his shin, thereby playing Pogba onside.

In the second half, much like the two clubs, the football gods changed sides. After allowing Pawson sufficient time to mistakenly believe the worst was behind him, they nudged his left shoulder shortly after the hour mark. He checked to see who it was just as Joe Ledley leapt into the air, crooking his arm to deflect a cross away from Marcos "that man again!" Rojo's head inside the box. As the ball went towards United's end, Pawson must have momentarily thought he was at the Nou Camp. Only, the players surrounding him in lynch mob fashion were not wearing Barcelona's red and blue, but Real Madrid Manchester United's plain white. Players often beg for calls but, in England, they tend not do so en masse with murder in their eyes unless the official has truly gotten it wrong. It was understandable, then, for Pawson to be a bit shaken and therefore vulnerable to yet another error.

Just a minute or two later, the gaffe came. Juan Mata was flagged for offside after appearing to score United's second goal. The football gods may have thought they were overdoing things a tad. Thus, it was the linesman's left ear into which they blew, rather than Pawson's. Like a losing club's manager, however, the referee is responsible for his entire team's performance, so Pawson again took the brunt of the criticism.

In Japan, nine-and-a-half hours earlier, perhaps just as Pawson was thinking what he might have for lunch on such a pleasant day, the so-called "fifth official" in the replay booth at Suita City Stadium whispered in match official Viktor Kassai's ear (I'm not sure which). From a set piece, Atlético Nacional winger Orlando Berrío had stuck out his leg, tripping Kashima Antler defender Daigo Nishi in the box. Either not noticing or initially deeming the contact incidental, Kassai had let play continue. The official in the booth suggested it should be otherwise. Kassai stopped play, went to the touchline to view the replay on a tablet, then decided to award a penalty. You can view the entire process from 0.37 in the video to 1.18 when Shoma Doi converts from the spot.
Roughly thirty seconds pass from the moment Kassai blows play dead to when he arrives at his decision. If it always works so smoothly, it's difficult to see why Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini were so concerned the process would harm the game. That isn't to say it will always work smoothly. Blatter and Platini also claimed their integrity was above reproach.

At any rate, it took retired referee-cum-studio analyst Howard Webb the better part of a half-hour to offer up a digitally augmented view of Juan Mata's goal from the BT Sport Palace/United match broadcast, suggesting the midfielder's toe was in fact offside on the play. Yet, if BT Sport's video editor had chosen a frame just a millisecond or two earlier, when the through ball was still experiencing the impact from Zlatan Ibrahimović's foot but Mata's toe was not quite so far up the pitch, the goal might have been determined to be legitimate. Human judgment still plays a critical role.

Webb's conclusion the call was correct seems even more ridiculous when you consider Mata is barely 5' 7" and doesn't run around wearing big red Ronald McDonald-sized clown shoes for football boots. To give you an idea how unlikely it was the linesman at Selhurst Park could tell exactly where the Spaniard's toe was as the pass was struck, consider that last year, across the Atlantic, the National Hockey League allowed teams to challenge whether players were offside on a scored goal in their game. NHL linesman only have to reach a blue line on a much smaller, narrower playing surface to judge whether players are onside, rather than keep level with the play at all times. Yet, it turned out over the course of a season's worth of challenges that getting the very close onside/offside call correct was virtually a roll of the dice.

Of course, another issue with overturned calls in not just hockey, but every American sport with video review, is identifying the amount of time elapsed which needs to be restored. Precisely resetting the clock frequently takes far more time than ruling on the play itself. Happily, though, since the clock in football doesn't stop, the match could continue with the video official later telling the referee how much time was lost.

How long video officials, then Craig Pawson, may have dithered over the status of Mata's toe before deciding one way or the other is difficult to say. Difficult decisions take more time. Perhaps there needs to be a cap on the time taken to decide. Perhaps the video official should be able to simply overrule the call on the pitch.

Some people, like Blatter and Platini in their day, might still argue we should leave it in match officials' admittedly imperfect hands. Auto racing aside and sailing aside, athletics are about the human mind and body, not machines. While human error is part of competition, should it also be allowed to remain part of adjudicating said competition? In the interests of fairness, don't we want to get the calls right as frequently as possible?

There is no question calls changed after video review will irrevocably change matches. There would be no going back if a call is mistakenly reversed. Ashton Kutcher kept trying to go back via time travel in that movie from 2004. He didn't account for the butterflies, however, so everything kept ending badly. Similarly, had Pawson shown Rojo a red card in the first half of the Palace/United clash, we don't know where a butterfly would have taken us from there.

On the one hand, the outcome may have been better for Pawson and Crystal Palace. United may not have had the chances they did which led to further bad calls. It's more difficult to keep possession and score when down a man. If Palace had the run of play from that moment, Alan Pardew may not have sent on Joe Ledley in the second half, thereby eliminating his handball from existence. One butterfly passing the baton to another, as it were.

On the other hand, United have a very talented group. They may have still bossed play, found a way to score, and won the match anyway. Considering the Eagle's tenuous position on the verge of relegation, losing to United while enjoying the man advantage may have cost Pardew his job. A butterfly of a decidedly different colour. Given the infinite possibilities, there's simply no telling how one altered moment will affect an entire match.  Which is why I hate butterflies.
If the previous three paragraphs felt a bit irrational to you, don't worry. It was intentional. The entire notion we should continue to vilify referees for bottling important decisions while denying them the very technology that allows us to instantly determine they've cocked things up is not only irrational but goes against the fundamental concept of fair play that demands their presence in the first place. It's also sadistic fun, which is probably the real reason some people are against video review. Regardless, the important thing is to make as many correct calls as possible as quickly as possible, balancing accuracy with efficiency rather than choosing one over the other. If FIFA strikes the proper balance, replay technology can significantly improve the game.

As for alternate realities, other than Marcos Rojo, who cares? Let the butterflies fall where they may.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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