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Jun 19, 2012

So much for the fifth official

How many match officials does it take to get a call right?

FIFA President Sepp Blatter might answer that only one is needed: the man on the field clutching that whistle and those funny-colored cards. The officials on either sideline -- you know, the ones clutching the flags -- are equally reliable and accountable within the course of play, while the fourth official between each team's bench looks after the more clerical matters.

Michel Platini, guardian of UEFA and chief influencer of the European Championship, goes one further with the introduction of a goal-line official whose chief purpose (they'll have you believe) is to correctly determine contentious plays around goal.

However, we know the truth: The extra officials, whatever their role, exist to justify the ruling bodies' arcane stance on introducing technology to assist in getting important decisions correct.

We know the most famous example of this weakness in soccer -- England's third goal against West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final -- but Tuesday's Group D denouement provided another big example to ruffle fans' feathers.

In England's testy, tense 1-0 win over co-host Ukraine, Marko Devic capped a slick left-flank move with a low shot that Joe Hart partially blocked. Still, the ball looped goalward, eventually heaved clear on the line by John Terry. Except, it clearly crossed the line. Replays showed the entirety of the ball breaking the plane, but the goal-line official couldn't confirm it, to the dismay of the majority of fans in Donbass Arena.

Other sports, like tennis, cricket, rugby and every major American sport, must wonder what all the fuss is about. Fans enjoy seeing their teams succeed and reap the rewards of good fortune, but the argument against decisive technology -- robbing sports of their built-in drama and intrigue -- is made irrelevant by the fact that all the aforementioned sports are as gripping as ever.

Soccer won't be neutered by the inclusion of a camera or two. Far from it, in fact. If anything, the drama of seeing England forced to scrap and battle for a second goal, barely aware of the mania developing in Sweden's 2-0 win over France, would have been far more compelling than anything the final 25-plus minutes actually produced.

Let's be fair to the goal-line official for a moment. As close as he was to the action, his vantage point was still not ideal. Being stationed slightly behind the line and at an angle gave him a surprisingly difficult call, and he was left trying to judge the position of an object in the air relative to a spot on the ground. But to swing it back around, that's his job. Short of perching the official on the crossbar or gluing him to the post, there will always be imperfections in whatever steps are taken to minimize human error, no matter how many custodians are parked behind either goal. In the end, Devic's strike did break the plane, and not one of the men in charge was able to give Ukraine its due. (Hilariously, Devic was offside when the initial ball was played in midfield, and had the linesman paid attention, the non-goal would have been rendered irrelevant anyway. But we're talking principles here!)

So where do we go from here? Inevitably, we're left to worry about the knockout stages in which every goal could be massively decisive. Yes, Devic's no-goal was rendered irrelevant by Les Bleus' defeat to the Swedes, but hindsight and events in other games are no excuse. And now, there's an unsavory talking point to potentially overshadow what has been a fun and entertaining first fortnight of Euro 2012.

From here, I suspect that soccer's lawmaking body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) will step up its testing on a variety of goal-line technology prototypes and proprietary systems. In the interim, more incorrectly disallowed strikes will be followed by apologies, like the ones issued following Frank Lampard's no-goal versus Germany and Argentina's clearly offside strike against Mexico at the 2010 World Cup.

We know that these outbursts of "Sorry!" do little to ease the rancor of the masses. What should infuriate fans more than the no-goals themselves is that the IFAB, essentially soccer's Supreme Court, is all about appeasing its members and not those paying to sit in the stands.

How do soccer laws get created, amended or overruled? According to FIFA: "For a motion to be accepted, a three-quarters majority is needed." A vote. We know, from the legislative limitations of the Senate, that voting is never a simple yes or no. Interests must be protected. And the IFAB is, as FIFA notes, "considered to be a conservative organization" because "the attraction of the game of football resides in its simplicity."

In short: Don't expect a camera on a soccer field any time soon. Just a lot more apologies.

 

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