Five officials – right idea, wrong time

N.B. Shortly after this article was published, FIFA announced that they would not be introducing goal-line assistants at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is today expected to reveal radical proposals to bring forward the introduction of two extra goal-line officials in time for next summer’s World Cup. For an organisation popularly depicted as ponderous and bureaucratic, it represents a commendable desire to rectify the problems with the current system of officiating that were brought into such sharp focus by the Thierry Henry handball affair. It also has the uncomfortable feel of a knee-jerk reaction.

“The mood is that something has to be done and the easiest solution is to bring in the extra assistant referees,” said a FIFA executive committee member, doing little to dispel the notion that this is at best a quick-fix.

UEFA president Michel Platini receives a lot of unfair criticism in the UK media for his supposed anti-British bias, but his support for the five officials plan is well-intentioned. The system upholds the primacy of the referee’s authority, is a far cheaper solution than video technology and also has the benefit of being easy to replicate at amateur levels.

The problem is that it is largely untested. FIFA’s initial plan was to trial it in this season’s Europa League before rolling it out to the 2010-11 Champions League and then domestic leagues the season after. Prior to this season it had been trialled in just a handful of Under-19 European Championship matches and the International Football Association Board is not due to assess the system’s efficacy until the end of the season. Introducing it barely six months before the World Cup – and before any official report into its credibility – would give the officials due to work at the tournament precious little time to get used to the system, which hasn’t even been proven to work in the first place.

FIFA takes referee preparation very seriously indeed. Their elite panel of referees and assistants have been training in teams of three since 2007 in preparation for the World Cup, but would have only six months to get used to working as a five-man team. An official like Howard Webb, who is expected to be England’s refereeing representative in South Africa, would have just a month free from domestic responsibilities between the end of the Premier League season on May 9 and the start of the World Cup on June 11 to get used to his two new colleagues.

“If they decide to do it, they’ve got to prepare the referees,” says former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher.

“It would be a mistake for the guy to go in on the opening match and have to do that for the first time.”

FIFA is right to want to improve refereeing standards, but the new timeframe is too hasty. There has not been enough time to analyse the impact of the extra officials in the Europa League, where high-profile mishaps – such as the case of mistaken identity in Fulham’s 1-1 draw with Roma – have attracted more attention than error-free decision-making.

If the five officials system was not a demonstrable success it would be seen as an embarrassing failure and the 2010 World Cup would forever have a stain against it. The Henry handball has provoked a timely debate about refereeing standards, but the world’s governing body should have faith in the careful steps it is already taking, rather than being sucked into making a rash decision on such an important matter. The World Cup finals is not the place for experimentation.

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