The founders of association football envisaged a game without a referee when they drafted the first Laws of the Game in 1863, so what they would have made of the advanced technology that will assist decision making at this year’s World Cup is anyone’s guess.
But from the time when a whistle was introduced in the 1870s to the semi-automated offside technology that will assist the Video Assistant Referee in Qatar, using cameras in the stadium and a chip in the ball, officiating of the game has continued to evolve – although at no more a pace than in the past 15 years.
When the first Laws were drawn up there was no provision for a referee.
“There was an assumption that a gentleman would never deliberately commit a foul. Amid the increased competitiveness, however, the penalty, or as it was originally called ‘the kick of death’, was introduced as one of a number of dramatic changes in 1891,” says a history of the Laws of the Game published by FIFA.
“Penalties had to be awarded by someone and following a proposal from the Irish Association, the referee was allowed on to the field of play. True to its gentlemanly beginnings, disputes were originally settled by the two team captains, but, as the stakes grew, so did the number of complaints.”
Over the decades that followed, the referee would gain two assistants, or linesmen, to help his decision making but it was only after the advent of television coverage of the sport, and much closer scrutiny of officiating, that a rapid evolution of refereeing aids were introduced.
England’s Premier League was the first to work on goal line technology, but their initial efforts at implementing it were rejected by the International Football Association Board, who are the custodians of the Laws.
This changed after the controversy of Frank Lampard’s effort crossing the line for England against Germany but not being awarded as a goal in a major refereeing blunder at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The technology, based on the concept of Hawk-Eye which was the brainchild of Professor Paul Hawkins, who devised a way of using specially placed cameras to improve the accuracy, was introduced in 2013.
It changed the attitudes about the use of technology in football, which had, by then, fallen significantly behind advances in eliminating mistakes in most other major sports.
The first discussion about Video Assistant Referees were held in late 2014 and by the time of the World Cup in Russia four years later it was introduced – now used at all major tournaments and in 50 different countries.
FIFA have been striving to catch up quickly and now even have their own department of ‘Football Technology & Innovation’.
Semi-automated offside technology is the latest addition to the refereeing tool kit, as margins for error become less and less.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Christian Radnedge)