On May 22, 2016, the English national football team beat its Turkish counterparts by two goals to one. Like many England matches, no one really remembers the match for anything that happened on the pitch because the game’s real incident came when Turkey’s manager, Fatih Terim, incensed by an offside goal being allowed, paced the touchline watching a replay of the goal on his phone. Eventually, as cartoon steam started to escape out of his ears, Terim showed his findings to the fourth official, but rather than use the make the referee aware of the mistake that had been made, the fourth official appeared to confiscate Terim’s phone.
Unexpectedly, rather than being just another dull England friendly, the game has become known for highlighting the uneasy relationship between football and technology. In the England -Turkey case, the information Terim took from his phone was used to harangue the match officials, but the information gleaned from having electronic devices available to managers could them allow to make better decisions and more effective contributions. This is the opinion of perhaps the world’s greatest football team, FC Barcelona.
“Sports need to change its rules, and do things to adapt knowledge to the match,” says Raul Pelaez, head of sports technology at FC Barcelona. “Specifically, in football I imagine that in a few years we can see staff on the bench with laptops seeing in real time the performance of the players. Now it is not possible because it’s not allowed – to have electronic devices on the bench. I think it needs to change.”
Punish behaviour not tech
Football is often accused of burying its head in the sand when it comes to introducing new technology. It took years for football to accept the usefulness of goal-line technology, and while it is now permitted, it’s still not a requirement in the world’s major leagues. However, despite its Luddite approach to introducing tech, football’s lawmaking body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), is currently consulting with football’s stakeholders on the subject of introducing electronic devices into dugouts around the world. The problem, as it sees it, is that introducing technology could turn football (even more so) into a game between the haves and the have nots, and ultimately create unfair advantages between competitors.
“We wanted to avoid [the situation where] teams who are financially disadvantaged, who will not have access to information in the technical area, feeling disadvantaged [compared]to teams who have financial resources and [can afford] to analyse tactics and player movements,” says IFAB Secretary, Lukas Brud.
That argument ignores the fact that football is already fundamentally unequal – if one club can afford to pay a reported £89.3m, not including wages, then how can other football clubs with more modest budgets compete with that? But Brud admits that apart attempting to make football fair, the IFAB also wants to avoid situations like the one Fatih Terim caused against England.
“We want to avoid people in the technical area, whether they’re players, coaches or technical staff, being able to see replays that can be transmitted to the technical area,” says Brud. “The technical area needs to remain clear of those devices because we can’t control them.
“We will be doing a survey with all the member associations around the world to see if we should potentially allow these kinds of technological devices in the technical area, but punish behaviour not the use of it. In other words, if a team is using it without having any impact on their behaviour towards the match officials or the other team then that’s fine. If they approach the referee and say ‘I just saw on the replay that you made a massive mistake’ then that should be punished,” explains Brud.
“We cannot control what is happening in the technical area right now because the devices are becoming smaller and smaller, so information can be accessed easily nowadays, and the fourth official’s role is not to check whether a player has hidden or has a mobile phone in his hand.”
Laptops on the bench
Former Southampton manager Harry Redknapp once famously barked at his performance analyst: “I’ll tell you what, next week, why don’t we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?” But despite Redknapp and others’ protestations, the introduction of technology in football cannot be avoided, although, as Barcelona’s Pelaez points out, “the most important thing is still the ball and the players.”
Brud says that the IFAB is currently discussing whether to allow medical staff to use electronic devices, like tablets, so that they can assess injuries quicker
Brud says that the IFAB is currently discussing whether to allow medical staff to use electronic devices, like tablets, so that they can assess injuries quicker and have access to potentially vital resources. According to Brud, this will likely be approved the IFAB’s AGM in March. While that would be a positive step, the move wouldn’t allow for managers and coaches to analyse data in real time, although Brud says depending on the outcome of its conversations with football’s stakeholders this position may change come the time of the IFAB’s 2018 AGM.
“We need to identify if that’s what football wants, so we will liaise with all the different stakeholders around the world to find out if coaches, players, referees, competition organisers – whoever is relevant to this debate – whether or not we should allow the technical area to use technological devices,” says Brud.
Eventually we may have reached a situation where football managers have access to real-time, player-performance data, but don’t count on them being able to transmit this data onto the pitch electronically anytime soon.
“If players on the field of play can receive a signal from a communication device from the coach or from his staff, then this may be prone to the potential misuse by potential match fixers,” says Brud. “This is a big business and we want to avoid and to support any mechanisms to avoid match manipulations.”
The desire to avoid signals being sent from match fixers to players is understandable, but it’s odd that no such worries were identified when officials were given communication devices, and, like players, they also have the power to change the course of a match.
Given the IFAB’s position, it’s unlikely we’ll see football managers being able to stop bellowing nonsensical orders from the touchline anytime soon, but it’s inevitable that football will introduce increasing quantities of technology in the coming years. The football dugout is certain to change, with more and more tech discreetly being introduced, but don’t expect the field of play to ever consist of anything more than players, an official and a ball.