U.S. soccer fans are likely to remember last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup for two very different reasons. The first, America’s early elimination from the cup at the hands of Jamaica, probably won’t stand out all that much from the many other failed campaigns that litter the history of the USMNT.
The other thing that will protrude from memories is the extremely low quality of officiating in matches involving the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and many of the other teams that form our confederation. Sadly, this phenomenon seems a little too familiar throughout the world of international football as well.
The fact of the matter is that incorrect decisions are so common in soccer simply because of how tough the sport is to officiate. Wrongly-awarded red cards or penalty kicks can be the decisive moments of matches whether they occur in the first minute of play or the last minute of stoppage time, meaning near-perfect refereeing is necessary around the clock in order to truly make a soccer match fair. The burden of vigilance on soccer officials is hugely greater than on those in American football or basketball, where decisions usually only become critically important to the outcome if they’re made in the last few minutes of the game.
Yet despite this reality, soccer is the only major sport that doesn’t use video reviews on any level whatsoever. Replay isn’t just absent in global competitions — FIFA actively disallows it from all of its member confederations in all capacities. It’s no wonder that allegations of match corruption have littered different soccer tournaments around the globe when there’s no mechanism for correcting a bad decision, no matter how much the circumstances call for it.
Unlike some notorious stances of soccer’s governing body, the ban on instant replay isn’t entirely irrational. Wantonly allowing instant replay would irreversibly harm the style and flow of soccer games, and mandating its use might greatly tax the resources of leagues that generate less revenue. A well-designed implementation at key game moments and in carefully chosen locations, however, could almost entirely avoid both of these pitfalls. Major decisions in the game already tend to produce natural stoppages that could be used to review the prior events, and it shouldn’t cause any unfair advantages to implement the tool in one area and not the other.
If some places seem less promising for implementing instant replay, there are others where it appears to be a no-brainer. Certain fanbases feel as if they have disproportionately been the victim of bad calls on an international scale, and giving them a reason to believe that games will be fair could provide the incentive needed to build more interest in the sport.
Perhaps the best example of such a league is Major League Soccer. Soccer fans in the United States have already become used to waiting for replay determinations to be made while watching other sports. Additionally, they often have as many reasons as any to decry its absence in professional soccer (especially any fans who support the Mexican National Team), and MLS stadiums likely already have the infrastructure needed for replay in place for the purposes of TV broadcasting.
Even more importantly, the state of American soccer is such that instant replay would really only bring benefits to teams and fan bases across the country. The U.S. really doesn’t have any longstanding traditions that involve the sport, so few people would be there to decry any changes that it would bring onto the pitch. On the other hand, thousands of Americans are still becoming more interested and familiar with the game, and permitting replay in domestic matches will eliminate a major hurdle of confusion and frustration for these potential fans of having to explain why obviously bad decisions cannot be second-guessed in soccer.
The MLS has already performed some primitive explorations into replay technology, but as of yet it does not appear that the league has made a strong request of FIFA to allow it to use such technology in competitive play. This needs to change. Every minute lost through a cautious approach will lead to losses in interest, fans and revenue for a league that could certainly use more of each.
At minimum, MLS officials should make it clear that it will implement replay as soon as it’s allowed to. Should the go-ahead fail to arrive, it will need to seriously consider distancing itself from FIFA in a way that permits it to begin using this technology. The consequences of this, like exclusion from the CONCACAF Champions League or global club tournaments, may hurt for a while, but in the long run it will lead to a fairer, kinder and more entertaining game. Ultimately, for a league that’s designed to encapsulate the soccer world in America, it’s hard to imagine that another objective could be more important.
This column was good and all, but Andrew Mather seems to have forgotten that Winston Shi is the only person allowed to write “Instant Replay” pieces in The Stanford Daily. Tell Andrew Mather to re-find his rightful place in the columnist pecking order at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.