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Men and machines

On Sunday, Schalke 04 won 3-1 away at Borussia Moenchengladbach to draw level on points with Bayern once more at the top of the league. It was a deserved win for a fine team in blue thanks mainly to a hat-trick from Ailton. Schalke's coach Ralf Rangnick said he was happy with his side's performance save for the first twenty minutes, while his counterpart Dick Advocaat let it be known his team had lost to a better opponent and that, basically, was that.

Yet it could have been different. Ailton missed a sitter on 32 minutes, and six minutes later Gladbach went ahead through a penalty for a presumed shove on striker Wesley Sonck. When the cross sailed in Sonck was offside, but the assistant referee missed that.

As he went up for the ball, Sonck suddenly spread his arms like a man shot from behind and came crashing to the ground. TV replays from various angles couldn't disclose any wrongdoing by Schalke's young defender Christian Pander, let alone a solid push in the back. But the whistle had been blown and Joerg Boehme dutifully slotted the spot kick home.

If Gladbach had managed to sit on that lead and win the game, all hell would have broken loose. Especially since a week earlier referees had blundered left, right and centre at various grounds around the league, with Stuttgart's coach Matthias Sammer saying he couldn't say anything - 'Otherwise I'm out of a job, because if I told the truth, they would do more than just suspend me'- and Bochum's gaffer Peter Neururer claiming his side had now been robbed of twelve points this season by the men in black.

When Bochum were promptly awarded a debated (yet correct) penalty on Saturday against Freiburg, who also had their keeper controversially sent off, Freiburg's coach Volker Finke darkly hinted Neururer had used psychological warfare on the referees: 'We knew that it was very unfortunate timing to play Bochum now, following last week's remarks. I had told my boys: Let's hope nothing lukewarm will occur in the box.'

Do we, the fans, really enjoy such mud-slinging and endless second-guessing?

And are fans really gloating when they win a crucial match thanks to a wrong decision, or do supporters whose team has been robbed quickly get over this because they have something to debate down at the pub? After all, these are some of the arguments always brought forth against the use of video replays during matches to assess critical situations.

Accusations and complaints are part and parcel of the game, we are told, and supporters would sorely miss baiting the referee Monday morning at work.

Excuse me, but that's a circular argument that doesn't lead anywhere, because it defends the status quo simply by saying it's the status quo. Of course the feeling that someone's been cheated is part of the game, because we've never really tried to do something about it.

I doubt there are too many fans out there who prefer losing a game under suspect circumstances to winning it fair and square, only because the former option will give them something to hang a conversation on.

And of course supporters complain about referees on Monday morning because they happen to be wrong from time to time and why would you not talk about that? Yet somehow I'm not sure that this is really one of football's major attractions. I doubt there are too many fans out there who prefer losing a game under suspect circumstances to winning it fair and square, only because the former option will give them something to hang a conversation on.

Another argument, offered even by coaches such as Kaiserslautern's Kurt Jara, is that using the help of video replays would 'undermine the referee's authority'. There's half a dozen things you could reply to that, including that it doesn't much help a referee's authority to be under verbal barrage from the bench or being forced to justify himself after the match for having gotten a particular penalty situation wrong

But I think the basic one is this: it's not the referee's job to exert authority. His job is to apply the rules correctly and get his decisions right. It's only because there is no-one (and no thing) to help him with this task that he's got to have authority.

Besides, what does 'undermine authority' mean anyway? Does it mean players will start a brawl and hack each other down mindlessly, only because a referee has been overruled by someone with access to a TV screen? It's been my experience that a referee loses control and authority much quicker if one side feels hard done by or even cheated.

Not to mention that some referees are often taking authority too far. After the first round of matches after the refereeing scandal had broken, Bochum's Marcel Maltritz was asked whether something had changed as regards the relationship between players and refs, and he replied: 'No. Referee Kemmling was just as arrogant as always.'

That scandal is the main reason video replays have become a topic again in Germany, not the string of faulty decisions that marked last week's games.

Ailton: Hit a hat-trick against 'Gladbach.
Ailton: Hit a hat-trick against 'Gladbach.

If there is a referee, the idea goes, who is trying to manipulate a match, his plans could be thwarted by a fourth official using video evidence to overrule the crook. This method would have stopped Robert Hoyzer early on.

Maybe it would even have deterred him from trying such shenanigans in the first place.

This line of reasoning suddenly makes video replays an enticing idea for FA functionaries under fire. 'We have to look at that topic without prejudice', said Theo Zwanziger, one of the two presidents of the German FA.

'We must realise that professional football has changed in a way that allows us to use modern technologies.' Of course neither the idea nor the technology is really 'modern', but better late than never. I still have to figure out why a simple peek at a screen is such a holy cow.

Over the last fifteen years, my club has lost one championship on account of a blatant dive, has won one championship thanks to the mother of all dives and has been gifted another league title because a ref fabricated a penalty out of thin air (it wasn't even a dive).

On balance, video replays would have thus cost me one party on the city square. Still, I'm all for at least giving the thing a try to see if and how we can get rid of the most glaring injustices. No matter if they are the result of a betting scheme or an honest mistake.

  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

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