Why Replay Would Not Work In World Cup Soccer

America is a country of ingenuity and invention, so it's in our nature to try and fix things we deem, as a society, need fixing. This idea is especially evident in sports society (think about the number of "how to fix the BCS" posts you've read, or written, in the past five years if you don't believe me.) As much time as we spend trying to fix our own sports, the "this is good, we can make it great" mentality always seems to kick in when Americans get enamored with a sport that's relatively new to us. ↵

↵You know, maybe it's not just Americans who are trying to fix the game. It seems, after some very questionable officiating in the group stage of the World Cup, many people around the world have suggested that a way to "fix" the game would be to institute replay. After Friday's tie that should have been a win for the U.S. men's soccer team, much of the discussion turned to the concept of replay being instituted in soccer. Per the AP: ↵

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↵⇥In the World Cup, with hundreds of millions of people watching around the globe, calls are scrutinized like no others in sports. So when a referee from Mali inexplicably disallowed an American goal that cost the United States a victory over Slovenia, it left many back home wondering why soccer doesn't adopt NFL-style instant replay. ↵⇥

↵⇥"Each sport is different," said Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere, selected to officiate Wednesday's match between the United States and Algeria. "In football you have a lot of interpretation, and when you have interpretation, you have never black and white zones. You have a lot of gray zones." ↵⇥

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↵The story leads with a reference to referee Martin Hansson, who says he cried after finding out the goal that put France into the World Cup was started with a handball by Thierry Henry he had missed. Hansson qualified that regret, however, by saying, "If you take 10 decisions every minute, it's impossible to have 900 decisions correct in the game." ↵

↵He's not wrong. It would be impossible to institute full replay into a soccer match. Here are a few reasons why: ↵

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↵Fouls in soccer are completely subjective: They shouldn't be, but fouls are subjective by what the referee and assistant referees see from the angle they have on a play. Some referees allow more hand-fighting and on-the-ball elbowing than others. Some give a card for any hard tackle while others wait for at least two offenses or a foul from behind or takedown with the spikes up to give a booking. Having instant replay on fouls in soccer would be like the referee going to a replay booth for every holding call in football. Some refs just call it differently than others and replay won't change that. Case in point, even if there was replay in the U.S. match, there is no way the "foul" on Maurice Edu would have been reviewable, let alone actually reviewed. ↵

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↵The New York Times had a story yesterday that officials have talked openly about getting more calls right, and are willing to take part in training sessions to be more prepared. And yes, some subjective calls are just wrong: ↵

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↵⇥“Sometimes, there is a decision that is just a mistake,” said Howard Webb, a referee from England. “Just like, sometimes, the players make a mistake. We don’t expect the players to come and apologize to spectators, to their fans. I don’t think we should.” ↵
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↵The flopping: It's the worst part of the game, and much of the reason some international squads are so hated around the world (Italy, I'm looking at you). But how would a referee deal with flopping? If the whistle blows for a foul, but instant replays indicate the player was faking it — a player struck in the arm falls like he was smacked in the face — would there be time to stop the ensuing free kick and reset the match to give the ball to the other team? Would every foul have to be reviewed to check if there was a flop? Currently, the rules dictate that an obvious flop results in a yellow card for the offending player. Without stopping the match every time the whistle blows to make absolutely certain the foul was really a foul and not a clever fake, there's no true way to police all the flopping via replay. ↵

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↵The fluidity of the game: In the AP story, Hansson brought up the example of continuation: ↵

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↵⇥"Maybe if they play on, there was a red card before they could stop the game. What should they do with this red card? Should this player still be sent off? Or should he be back? There's one million questions." ↵
↵This is the same argument people have about baseball. If a player catches the ball in the outfield and doubles off a runner at second base, but replay indicates the ball was trapped, where does the runner go? In soccer, the play is far more fluid than that example, so determining the result of a play after the whistle should have stopped play would be impossible. ↵

↵That said, hockey has this in their sport with regard to goals, resetting the game to the point the goal went in. It seems to work for them. ↵

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↵It wouldn't, however, work on the phantom handball for which U.S. striker Robbie Findley received a yellow card. If replays indicated to the referee what the world saw — the ball went off his face, not his hand — would the yellow card be rescinded during the match? After the match (which, I contend FIFA should do anyway)? And who would retain possession of the ball? The call was made in front of the goal mouth and immediately stopped a scoring chance for the United States. Had replay given the ball back to the U.S., would they get an indirect kick from outside the box? Retain possession at midfield? Get a throw in? None of these are exactly fair — though admittedly better than just getting the call wrong and moving on. But what if the ball was put in the net by Findley as the whistle was blowing? Could it still count? ↵

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↵These are all questions that could, in theory, be answered with hard-and-fast rules. But do you expect FIFA to do that? ↵

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↵The egos: These are the most important matches in the world and still the referees are bungling calls. Yet the selected lot of officials are the best in the world. How, then, do you expect the officials to put their egos in check during a match? "I know I just blew the whistle here and called a foul, but if you don't mind, I'd like a moment to make sure that call is correct before we continue." ↵

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↵That ain't happening. The second Brazilian goal against Ivory Coast on Sunday was a pretty clear handball by Luis Fabiano in the middle of the box. The officials shouldn't have even needed replay, but the call was missed and the game was ostensibly over at 2-0. Would an official have the ability to set ego aside after missing a call like that to go look at a replay screen? ↵

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↵Forcing that to happen by putting an official at each stadium for World Cup matches, or big international competitions, would completely castrate the referee on the field. The flow of the game is often dictated by the referees, egos and all, so taking that out of it changes more than just the result of one play here or there. And yes, I know I just played both sides of that argument. I'm not suggesting they shouldn't have replay, I'm more suggesting that it wouldn't work. Defeatist, I know. ↵

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↵Of course we want every call to be right, and maybe there are some (including some above) situations where replay could help do that. But it wouldn't fix everything, and could create more controversy — as to when it's used and when it's not — than not having it at all. Besides, it wouldn't give the U.S. the third goal they rightly deserved anyway. Isn't that all we really care about…getting our calls right? ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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