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Save Football, Save Our Souls

20 November, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

I admit it: I’ve taken the outcome of the farcical World Cup 2010 playoff between France and Ireland more seriously than I ought. My smug, albeit neutral, perch affords me the lofty position of unbiased – and therefore the harshest possible – judgement.

Thierry Henry’s shameful handling in the lead-up to the final French coup de grace, reminiscent more of a touch-down in rugby than the usually prescribed path to soccer goal scoring, leaves even the non-partizan reeling in contempt.

The incident has been described as the ultimate expression of human frailty; for the referees, whose experience and good sense abandoned their eyes at the crucial moment; for the French players, whose desire to win at all costs cruelly hijacked their common decency; and for the spectator, neutral and invested alike, who have been left roiling or rollicking to face a long, cold winter digesting the ugly and inescapable realisation that – regardless France’s performance in next year’s World Cup – the outcome is immutably corrupted.

Personally, I think it reflects all of those things and of course history is littered with egregious and outrageous officiating decisions.

But this one is different, this one goes further: this one footballing moment is a rejection of sport itself, a death knell to fair play and a perversion of every match to follow.

Our response is important. We must deal with it directly, not just as those who love to watch a game on Saturday afternoon but as one who believes sport to be a unyielding force for justice, tolerance and peace.

In other words, as human beings.

In Henry’s crime we have caught the cyclist mid-injection; the steroid-munching baseball player red-handed; the sprinter mid-sip of his illicit cocktail. We have eyes; the offence is plain to see. Feigning blindness to such iniquity is a damning indictment of us all.

But it is bigger than football, reflecting precisely our same uncertain response to soul-destroying corruption seen off the pitch.

It’s looking away from the misdeeds of bankers who rain misery the world over; ignoring crooked MPs who swindled the public with extravagant expenses; and even remaining indifferent as governments siphon money from education to warmongering.

We – you and I – must collectively say, “Enough.”

The Way Things Are

As for football, who could seriously argue maintaining the status quo in the face of such calamitous peril threatening our very souls? Competition is the backbone of our society: it drives our economy, our politics and our our evolutionary achievement. Are we prepared to reject all that?

I make the strongest possible argument for the introduction of technology in sport – all sport – today, this very moment. Not to reject tradition but to save it.

Human binary decisions – was the ball in or out? did it cross the goal line plane? – can be eliminated. These are not subjective questions and therefore our aim should be 100 percent accuracy. And why not? There is a right or wrong answer, perfection is possible.

This leaves referees focused on those decisions of judgement – tackles, hand balls, etc – which demand nuance and experience. These noble men and women study the rules, carefully overseeing matches their whole lives in order to deliver on the promise of fair play.

For this reason, to honour their commitment, they should be supported by a phalanx of cameras, poised to capture every move from every angle, to preserve the dignity of humans who can, and will, make mistakes. A tradition of error is not one worth preserving.

Of the many arguments for immediately introducing technology into the game, I find two most compelling:

I cannot imagine in 25 years, much less 50 or 100, that we will not be using technology extensively to adjudicate all levels of professional athletic competition. The sooner we start constructing that future, both on and off the pitch, the sooner we reach salvation.

And, to me the most obvious: there isn’t a referee alive who wouldn’t in a heartbeat take back a mistake which affected or perverted the outcome of a fair competition.  It seems cruel for us to deny means already available to avoid such a fate.

Quick: please, FIFA; please, technology; please, humanity; save our game, our traditions, before it’s too late. Before the harm is irreparable.

While we still have our souls.

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