Saturday 18 November 2017

How football will use video replays to avoid more Corry Evans-style mistakes

Northern Ireland's players react with disbelief after a penalty for handball is awarded against Corry Evans
Northern Ireland's players react with disbelief after a penalty for handball is awarded against Corry Evans

Northern Ireland's chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia suffered a major blow in Belfast on Thursday when Switzerland took a 1-0 lead in their two-leg play-off.

The goal came courtesy of a highly controversial penalty after referee Ovidiu Hategan decided midfielder Corry Evans had handled Xherdan Shaqiri's fierce shot - the Swiss did not appeal and replays showed it hit the back of his shoulder.

The decision has incensed Northern Ireland's players, staff and fans, with many seeing it as evidence for the immediate roll-out of video assistant referees. Here, Press Association Sport, outlines the debate about using technology to help officials.

Why doesn't football use video replays already?

That is the issue vexing Northern Ireland today, just as Irish fans were aggrieved after Thierry Henry's missed handball in a 2009 World Cup play-off with France, England supporters after Frank Lampard's goal was not given against Germany in 2010 and so on and so on. Unlike sports such as cricket, rugby and tennis, football has been very reluctant to take decisions away from officials on the pitch. Powerful figures like ex-FIFA boss Sepp Blatter felt strongly that football's laws should be universal, replays would ruin the flow of the game and human errors balanced themselves out.

So what changed?

Technology advanced, making cameras and sensors cheaper, more accurate and quicker, and football fans simply stopped buying the idea that mistakes should be accepted as part of the game. Blatter himself is said to have undergone a Damascene conversion when he witnessed Lampard's non-goal at the World Cup in South Africa and FIFA gave the Football Association of Ireland a five million US dollar loan to persuade it not to sue after Henry's handball. Goal-line technology was the first concession to modernity in 2012 and we are now in the middle of a two-year phase of video assistant referee (VAR) trials.

How do VARs work?

The theory is simple. A VAR, a current or former match official trained to review incidents on video, watches the action in a control room. An incident occurs on the pitch and either the on-pitch official will ask, via a headset, the VAR to look at it, or the VAR will contact the official to recommend a review. The VAR watches the replays and advises the official, who can also review the incident himself on a tablet computer at the side of the pitch. A decision is then made by the official.

Would that have helped Northern Ireland?

Yes, because VARs will be used in four specific cases: to decide if a goal should stand, to make correct decisions on penalties, to get red card incidents right and to avoid any cases of mistaken identity with cautions or red cards. The Corry Evans 'handball' clearly falls into these categories and a VAR would have been able to inform Hategan that he got it wrong.

Great, when can we have VARs, then?

As mentioned above, trials are under way in several countries and FIFA has been using VARs at some of its tournaments, most notably the Club World Cup and recent Under-17 World Cup. England obviously enjoyed the experience there as VARs will be used during Friday night's friendly at Wembley against Germany. The feedback, however, from leagues such as the Bundesliga and Serie A, where pilots are running, has been mixed, with complaints about delays, while the project manager in Germany has been sacked after it was claimed he was favouring his club. FIFA, though, is determined to iron out these issues in time for next summer's World Cup.

What happens next?

The trials continue, lessons are learned, the system is refined and the whole system is approved next year by football's law-making body the International Football Association Board - that is FIFA's plan, anyway, and what it wants, it usually gets. Whether Northern Ireland can overcome Thursday's injustice and make it to Russia 2018 and its VARs will be decided in Switzerland on Sunday.

Press Association

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