Football is broken. Can it be fixed?

Written on 14 April 2021, 05:42pm

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The nail-bitting moments. The anticipation of a goal. The celebrations. The supporter chants. The excitement. We all know these moments, and we all love them. Probably this is what attracted us to football in the first place.

But they are slowly going away. Time wasting and cheating are becoming the norm. The effective playing time is decreasing every season. The referees are taking inconsistent decisions. The VAR fixed some problems, but introduced others while painfully taking away the celebrations. And on top of all that, football is currently played on empty grounds.

Football is a low-scoring game. Bayern trashing Barcelona 8-2 or Liverpool conceding 7 at Villa Park are simply outliers in a sport that usually sees less than 3 goals per game. After reaching an average of 3.79 goals per game in the middle of October, the Premier League reverted to the mean and has currently 2.66 goals per game, in line with the historic average. There are very fine margins: more than 25% of the PL games end in a draw, while in further 40% of the games the winning margin is only one goal.
So in a game that sees on average less than 3 goals/match and where a team rarely wins by more than one goal, every goal counts.

In fact, a goal counts so much that it can dramatically change the way a game is played. When a team is happy with the result on the score board, they can effectively kill the rest of the game. The main weapon used for this purpose is time wasting and it’s largely tolerated by the referees and even appreciated by some pundits who are pretentiously calling it ‘game management’. Of course, this strategy doesn’t always work: sometimes the other team scores a goal, and might decide that it’s their turn to ‘manage the game’.
Suddenly seeing the attacking side of a team might be an exciting view. But most of the times, everything transforms into a borefest for the neutral viewer, who would rather watch the paint dry.
And just in case you were wondering how effective the time wasting is: from the allocated 90 minutes, only 55 represent actual playing time. It is not uncommon to have games with only 50% effective playing time.

Then, there are the referees. They are often responsible for sliding-doors moments and their subjective decisions can effectively decide the outcome of a game: fail to award a penalty, and several seconds later, a goal is scored at the other end. VAR doesn’t help too much in this scenario: as long as there’s not a clear and obvious error, the subjective decision of the referee will not be overturned. VAR is not interested in taking the right decision, but only in determining if there was a ‘clear an obvious error’. The right decision might be different for two different referees.
The referees are also primed to give a slight advantage to the home team, are often inconsistent, can get annoyed or might simply have a bad day.

But do you know what can always take the right decision in fractions of a second, is never influenced by the home crowd and is never hungry?

This guy:

Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Yes, I’m talking about the end of the human referees.
Just as the industrial revolution moved people away from agriculture to industry, the highly intelligent, non-conscious algorithms will gradually replace humans. And incidentally, referees.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect 100% correct decisions from human referees in the first place. To give only one example, the overlapping offside decisions would be a nightmare for most regular people (especially when additional players are blocking the view); yet the professional linesmen take the right decision more often than not.

The referees are taking two kinds of decisions during a game: objective and subjective.
The ball leaving the field of play and the offsides are binary, objective decisions that can be easily taken by an automated system consisting of several cameras, a small computer chip and some lines of code. In fact, this system is already in use: the Goal Line Technology is already telling the referee if the ball passed the goal line or not (unless a one in 9000 matches situation occurs). In a similar way, the referee could know in real-time if a player is offside or not. And the good news is, this is already happening:

Offside decisions may soon be “semi-automated” by using Artificial Intelligence to map players and make instant decisions. Arsène Wenger, who is now FIFA’s chief of football development, has said he is hopeful it will be ready for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Semi-automated offside: why Arsène Wenger thinks it can fix VAR

The linesmen will soon be obsolete.

The subjective decisions will be more difficult to get right in the beginning. But that’s just because the human referees have to spend time training the system by feeding him thousands and thousands of videos of previous decisions. Like the two police officers in ‘The parking space‘ episode of Seinfeld, agreeing upon the correct decision in each case might be the difficult part. However, the more games the algorithm ‘sees’, the better it will get. And at some point, its decisions will no longer go to the human referee watch, but directly to the players, via an electronic signaling system.

And then, the human referees will be obsolete.

How close we are to that moment? Your guess is as good as mine. From a technical point of view, all the pieces of the puzzle are there. What is missing is the willingness to change. All the arguments saying that this move would make the game less inclusive are nonsense. That ship has sailed the moment when VAR was introduced.

So, what would be left by the humans to do?
First of all, humans can (still) set up the rules of the game. The algorithm can only be as good as the rules it applies. Garbage in, garbage out – as the old programmers say. So maybe it’s time to finally agree which limbs can be offside, and what part of the arm can be in contact with the ball.
Training the beast is a continuous activity, so there’s that as well.
Finally, setting up the context of the games is important. Agree on the minimum effective playing time (2 x 40 minutes?) and play until that threshold is reached. Scrap the away goal rule – which provides an incentive for the teams to see the game out. Punish the cheating. The list is long.

Football is currently broken. Fixing it is not difficult — it just takes an open mind and the willingness to do it.

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