Category Archives: Sport

Coronavirus – the Olympics and imagining the future

The Olympic Games due to be held in Tokyo in July and August have been postponed by one year. Clearly, the discussion has shifted to whether even that will be possible. The issues are complex, and relevant to us all because they affect not just an international sporting event, but fundamentally everything we do.

There remains a widespread view that the pandemic will exist, at different levels of intensity, until there is a vaccine. That is, however, rather simplistic. This view derives from the Imperial College London modelling which, for the sake of assumption as much as anything else, determined that eighteen months was the minimum time required for a vaccine to be developed and a vaccination programme implemented. This was in fact optimistic; that timescale would be remarkable, but also there is no guarantee of a safe, workable vaccine at all. It is not possible for a non-virologist to gauge the probability, but it may be best to operate on the assumption that a vaccine would be a significant bonus.

There is also a view that the only alternative is “herd immunity”. That need not be the case either; it could be that other treatments or medicines render it less dangerous, or that social distancing is successful in marginalising it so that it has less effect (after all, viruses do not travel on their own). It should also be emphasised that immunity is not necessarily dependent on antibodies showing up in a serological test (some media reporting here is outright wrong).

The Spanish ‘Flu outbreak is deemed to have ended in 1919 because of “herd immunity”, but in fact the virus hung around in isolated communities until it seemed to be knocked out of circulation by the virus which caused the Asian ‘Flu of 1957 (this was a less known but nevertheless serious pandemic – in fact, unfortunately, it killed my own grandmother). However, there was an odd epilogue to this: in 1977 there was another ‘flu outbreak in Russia; it turned out, however, that anyone older than 20 was immune to it – the virus which caused the Spanish ‘Flu was, in fact, still about…

The question probably will be whether testing and tracing has managed to keep the virus isolated; what the scale of immunity (and indeed general susceptibility among a population which has already had a full wave of the virus) actually is; and whether some social distancing measures are still applicable and viable a year from now.

The balance of probability is that, one way or another, a year from now the virus will be largely under control in the Western World – we will have learned to live with it, we will be much more able to balance the risk ourselves, and the availability of everything from technology and treatment will be much enhanced. An Olympic Games in principle, with widespread testing, will probably be able to take place.

The question we rarely ask is whether this will be the case across the whole world. We should not underestimate the ability of the developing world to manage epidemics – it does so more often, after all. However, there is a risk that in particular locations, either because of socio-political instability or political populism, the virus will still be endemic and uncontrolled.

Ultimately, as ever with this thing, even asking the right questions does not necessarily lead us to the right answers – but even getting to the right questions is difficult.

How was pre-Premier League different?

One of the features of the lockdown is that people have begun feeling a little nostalgic. With no actual football to watch (and least in the UK and Ireland), a lot of attention has been paid to “on this day” posts, often in recent weeks relating to Cup Finals or League final days.

One fundamental question I saw asked was how was football pre-Premier League different? The question actually asked for three main ways…

As someone who began following Arsenal and Northern Ireland in 1981/2, my view, complete with a bit of cheating, purely for the fun of it…

Similarities

Firstly, there are some interesting ways in which the game is not different.

For example, compared to hockey (the sport in which I currently participate), the laws of football have proved remarkably stable. I wrote about officiating the two sports here, but in football the only major differences in the laws concern technicalities around goalkeeper’s possession (the back-pass law came in just in time for the Premier League) and kick-off. There have also been some amendments to when a goal is permitted from a restart (for example, you can now score direct from a goal kick), but this happens so rarely as to be irrelevant. In practice, perhaps the major difference on watching a game from the pre-Premier League era versus now is around offside; the law has fundamentally remained the same (except now “level is on” – so the benefit is supposed to be given to the forward, although the ludicrous precision of VAR has effectively now wiped this out), but the interpretation of the law is quite different, so that it is much harder to set an “offside trap” as players are much less likely to be deemed to be “interfering with play”. Otherwise, you can watch a game from 1990 or even 1960 and understand without difficulty what the players are trying to do and the parameters within which they are allowed to do it (good luck doing that with hockey!)

The basic principle of fan culture that it is a “game of opinions” has not changed either. Fans are still far more likely to judge that their own team’s players are noble and reasonable and that opposing team’s are devious cheats. Rivalries are still generally the same, based on geography and an element of heritage.

Things such as the size of the ball and the playing field, that the game is still played on grass, and that there are still league and cup competitions remain the same, albeit with significant differences in detail which are ultimately the point of the article! In other words it is still, identifiably, the same game.

FA Cup

For me personally, the most striking difference is the relative decline in importance of the FA Cup relative to other competitions.

A recent Sky Sports survey attempted to decide the best English club team of all time over three-season periods. However, in my view, the arguments in favour of Liverpool 1976-9 and 1981-4 or Nottingham Forest 1977-80 are enhanced in retrospect by considering what was then the then European Cup as equal to the current Champions’ League but forgetting that in those days the FA Cup (which none of those sides won) was of much higher value than it is currently.

There is no question that, when I was young, boys kicking a ball around against a wall or in a garden were imagining scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final – not to wrap up the League or to win the European Cup. I suspect that has changed considerably, and not just because they are now winning the Champions’ League on their PlayStations!

The FA Cup Final in particular was a much more significant day in the calendar – much like Super Bowl Sunday still is to Americans. It was for a long time the only club game screened live at all; and even later in the ’80s it was full of build-up, comedians, entertainers, marching bands, ridiculous suits and the astonishingly common occurrence of the underdogs winning (when it was settled on the day itself, the team finishing lower in the League actually won the Cup Final more often than it lost from the War to the Premier League era – though the favourites tended to win replays).

The introduction of the Premier League and the money that came with it relegated the FA Cup in importance. As late as 1992, the same two teams playing each other in the Cup would draw 25-30% more spectators than when they played each other in the League; as early as 1998, the equivalent League games began to attract higher gates. Even a couple of places in the Premier League, even if they do not define Champions’ League qualification or relegation, are literally worth more in prize money than the FA Cup.

Because of its status as the oldest competition of all, I would still just about rather win the FA Cup than qualify for the Champions’ League – but I do wonder if the two shouldn’t be combined, or even that will change.

Kits

Kits? Honestly, kits struck me as the second most obvious difference.

This is one area where I am clear I prefer the “good old days”. There was a delightful simplicity to the fact that goalkeepers wore green, referees wore black, and away teams remarkably frequently wore yellow. Goalkeepers could even be identified as belonging to their team by the fact they wore the same shorts and socks.

What is more, teams changed kit only every other season; sometimes they alternated home and away so they had one new kit every season. Third kits were not necessary as they cunningly ensured their home kits didn’t clash with their away kits…

(There was the peculiar “rule” in England for a while that teams were not even allowed to clash shorts; frankly this sometimes left Arsenal in a rather ludicrous yellow-shirt white-shorts combo when they went to places like Southampton which made them look like they were wearing nappies. They won two League Championships during that period, that said…)

Whereas now? It’s just a farce. And an outrageously commercialised one at that.

Venues

I cheated a little with my third by incorporating the entire venue…

Firstly, of course, the grounds themselves changed dramatically particularly after a series of tragedies, from the Bradford Fire to the Hillsborough Disaster, in the mid to late ’80s. By the early years of the Premier League, all grounds were all-seater; many clubs chose to build entirely new stadiums and have them named after sponsors, for good or ill (I know Bolton played at Burnden Park but I have no idea what the “Reebok” is now called…)

Secondly, the pitches themselves are now far better maintained. Back in the ’80s I would have predicted we would all have been playing on astroturf by now (clubs like QPR and Luton did this for a while), but it has not come to that. Gone, however, are the mucky penalty areas with clumps of mud the ball used to deflect off crucially, or linesmen having to change side at half-time to protect the side lines!

This, naturally, has quite an impact on the game itself – the percentages of just walloping the ball up in the air and hoping the big man gets a nick are no longer so much in your favour. Even at lower level, there is now more value in learning how to play the game properly, i.e. on the actual field (“If God had meant football to be played in the air, he’d have put grass in the clouds” said pre-Premier League management icon Brian Clough).

It has also had an impact on how we watch the game. It has, certainly from among the home support in side stands, become more like going to the theatre (and who knows when we will be able to do that again). There are some concerns that this has led to a “gentrification”, although that is probably less marked in some places than others. It is certainly true that ticket prices have become insane. We can wonder if one thing to emerge from behind-closed-doors football will be greater appreciation of the importance of the live audience – doubtful, but there is always hope!

Others

There were, however, so many other things.

How we find out results has changed unbelievably – remember Ceefax page 303 (“aah page 2/4, the tension!!”), evening newspapers or most dramatic of all the Vidiprinter?

Scottish club football was unbelievably good – remember Aberdeen beating Real Madrid to win the Cup Winners’ Cup, or Dundee United winning at the Nou Camp?

Of course, players were more geographically restricted – Division One consisted of players from the UK and Ireland with the odd Scandinavian import (Olsen, Molby), the occasional very exotic Lowlander (Metgod, Claesen), some truly exceptional players from the Commonwealth (Grobbelaar, Johnston), and the very very occasional South American (Ardiles, Mirandinha – the fact you can name them is the point). Arsenal won the Cup Winners’ Cup Final as recently as 1994 with an entirely English and Irish (actually “Ulster”!) team. Elsewhere it was the same – Italy only allowed foreigners in at all from 1980 and was running at two per team in 1984/5, a season in which an eighth of FIFA’s greatest 125 players of all time were playing in Serie A (yet it was won by tiny Hellas Verona).

Formations were quite different too. Most teams, certainly in the UK and Ireland, utilised a “strike partnership” and a flat back four (consisting of four actual defenders). In the ‘90s this gradually shifted. Many teams now play with lone strikers or indeed no particularly evident out-and-out striker at all. Wing backs were a thing of the future, total football was foreign and tiki-taka unheard of.

Another key aspect was that Leagues were more even. Everton accumulated 90 points from 42 games in 1986/7 and that was seen as miraculous; winning ten games in a row was almost unheard of; at the other end really quite good teams got relegated with more than a point a game. Everton recently missed out on the Champions’ League with 75 points – the same number which won the title as recently as 1997, and would almost always have won it pre-Premier League (with the notable exception of the crazy finish in 1989). Now, 90 points from 38 games would almost never suffice to become champions.

As a final quirk, there were fewer substitutions, fewer cards, and perhaps as a consequence less injury time. In 1997 David Elleray re-referreed the 1970 FA Cup Final replay and awarded seven red cards; Mark Clattenburg did so again last month and awarded eleven, including two to the same player. Back in 1970, there was in fact only one yellow! Even in the ’80s, cards were rare (and not actually displayed – bookings just consisted of the referee noting the names and sendings-off, of which I saw a very rare one myself of a goalkeeper at Highbury in 1986, consisted of a simple point to the dug-out). In League games until close to the Premier League era there was only one substitute (Cup games moved first to allow two, but even the Premier League initially stopped at that and all substitutes were pre-selected). Thus, injury time at the end of the first half was typically just a minute; at the end of the game two minutes – so injury time winners were rarer and more dramatic, not least since there was no signal to tell you how long was actually left…

Over to you…

Award Tottenham Hotspur the Premier League title

The Premier League and English Football League had made initial welcome steps towards ensuring completion of the season a few weeks ago, but now there seems to be some shift towards simply voiding the season, as has happened in the lower leagues (and, for example, in Irish hockey). However, if the season is voided, clearly there still has to be a champion?

The title should of course then be awarded to the best team which has never won the Premier League. The can be little doubt that this is Tottenham Hotspur.

Tottenham Hotspur’s record in recent seasons has been remarkable.

In 2015/16 Harry Kane led the line as the club battled it out with Leicester City for top prize, before a series of late misfortunes (typically involving scoring fewer goals than the other team) meant the club narrowly came third in a two-horse race.

In 2016/17, the mighty Spurs went unbeaten at home and really put the pressure on, pushing well into April before the title was awarded to Chelsea on the minor technicality that the Blues scored seven more points.

In 2017/18, Tottenham continued this astonishing unbeaten record at the Lane, admittedly mainly by not playing there, only to be denied again because the season was determined ridiculously over the entire 38-game season rather than on the basis solely of results against Bournemouth and Stoke.

In 2018/19, the mighty Lilywhites turned their attention to Europe, cruising through to the quarter-finals of the Champions’ League. Once there, they outclassed Manchester City on away goals before annihilating Ajax 3-3 on aggregate, only to be denied unfortunately when VAR agonisingly failed to intervene on either Liverpool goal in the final on the ludicrous technicality that they were both entirely legitimate.

Of course, this season alone Spurs remained unbeaten on the field in the various domestic Cup competitions, and would have advanced further had they not been unlucky enough to be drawn against big clubs like Colchester (away) and Norwich with their deviously expert penalty takers.

Nor should we forget the inexplicable outrage that the white side of North London has not even been allowed to compete for the Community Shield during the entire Premier League era, purely on the basis of not having managed to win either the League or the FA Cup during that brief 27-year period. It should also be remembered, of course, that the Premier League title was even won at the old White Hart Lane on one occasion, albeit by Arsenal.

Tottenham Hotspur of course also has a phenomenal new stadium, with the extra innovation that it is shared with the NFL with an extra pitch which can be rolled in and out for American Football. Admittedly, there is only room for this extra pitch because there was, of course, no need to incorporate a trophy cabinet.

So there it is, the clear case to award the title to Mourinho’s boys. It is time for a bit of charity. It’s not like they’re ever going to win anything on the field, after all.

Coronavirus – and the need for entertainment

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty is a fascinating outline of the essentials and challenges in tackling poverty across the world. It is fascinating because it does something very few people actually do – it asks the poor what they think. Using observation, it shows that choices made by people living in poverty often seem counter-intuitive, but make sense when the circumstances and the human condition are understood.

One chapter concerns a gentleman in rural Morocco. He is only able to work half the year and as a result is barely able to clothe and feed his family, who lack even shoes. Yet he has a television. The gentleman himself explains that he wants shoes but needs a television, because without it he would have no connection to the outside world and no regular source of entertainment. Connections and entertainment are not optional for human beings – we need them to survive.

Whatever happens in the next few months we will not face the same level of grinding poverty as that gentleman in Morocco. Nevertheless, we are about to find out that choices made in extreme situations are not necessarily the ones we would predict – even our own choices. As large parts of the Western World head into lockdown for some months, we will learn a thing or two about what we need versus what we merely want.

Twitter accounts such as David Steven (in Pisa) already give us a fascinating idea of the choices people make in lockdown. Yesterday, he reached the conclusion that people in lockdown require some kind of entertainment, and suggested some kind of football tournament.

The notion that footballers are “vital workers” is immediately counter-intuitive and instinctively outrageous, and yet we may expect this to be a growing demand. If testing for the virus is ramped up so that there are more tests in a day than there once were in a month, it will become possible to hold games behind closed doors safely. Indeed, we may expect this to become the case just as we are collectively getting really bored, so it may be just the trick to keep us all inside on a beautiful May Day weekend.

Sitting inside on the sofa on a sunny day watching football for our own good? This could be just one example of how we learn a lot about ourselves in the coming months.

 

How to complete the football season…

Sport is far from the biggest issue we have to deal with right now, but nevertheless it is an outlet and the fact it is not happened leads us to have nothing sporting to debate except when it will happen again…

Let us start with men’s professional football. Given the nature of the European club and international competition, ultimately choices around what happens now will be made broadly in common across at least all the big leagues (the “Big Five” are usually assumed to mean the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue Un).

We do not know when football will be able to re-start, but we do know that it cannot be before early April in most countries and will likely be well after that. This brings all the following dates under impossible or at least severe pressure:

  • late March, end of European Championship qualifying;
  • mid-May, end of national leagues;
  • end May, FA Cup and European club finals;
  • 12 June, start of European Championships.

If you can get the club season re-started in May, you can probably shift the European Championships back to 2021 and use the extra time, through to early July, to complete the league season. There is no reason not to complete the FA Cup too (this requires only seven games in total). If necessary, European competitions could be reduced to one leg (conceivably, for example, the last eight could simply converge on the same city for a week to play the quarter-finals, semis and Final).

However, there is a fair chance even this will not be possible and play will not resume until the summer, meaning that completing the season means delaying the next one. In this event, it seems to me that there are three main options, all of which should perhaps note that the next World Cup in 2022, exceptionally, takes place in November.

Void the season

One option (pursued particularly vociferously coincidentally by Manchester United supporters and also conveniently by relegation-threatened West Ham United…) is to “void” the season. In effect, the 2019/20 season would be deemed not to have taken place, and the 2020/21 season would start (presumably) in August as usual with the teams in the same divisions in which they are currently and no trophies (except presumably the English League Cup) having been awarded.

This does seem ludicrous, although some people would argue it is necessary because future timetables have already been set, and it would be judicially reviewable if teams were deemed relegated on the basis of an incomplete season.

In this eventuality, the cleanest thing to do is shift the European Championships to Summer 2021, with the remaining qualifiers presumably played some time in the autumn.

But, sorry United fans, I really don’t think – legally or morally – this is a serious option…

Complete the season & abbreviate a later season

Another option is to complete the season, come what may. This may, for example, mean the re-start of football in August (or even late July) is still the current season, with various Finals taking place perhaps in October or November.

This would then require a break in, say, November, to enable the establishment of fixture lists for the new season (a much more complex undertaking than many realise) alongside the establishment of European competitions based on final league places.

Potentially, what could happen here is either the 2020/21 season would be abbreviated so as to end in May, or perhaps a couple of seasons ending in October would be played out ahead of the 2022 World Cup and the subsequent season abbreviated so as to end in May 2023 (there are good reasons for this latter, in fact, to allow for an adjustment with clear advance warning).

Abbreviating seasons could consist of:

  • splitting leagues at midway to reduce fixtures (similar to in Scotland or Northern Ireland – so, for example, after 19 games the Premier League would be split into a top ten and a bottom ten and nine more games played for a total of 28 games rather than 38) with automatic promotion (i.e. abolishing end-of-season playoffs);
  • temporarily playing European competitions on a straight knock-out competition as in the past and perhaps with just one leg (and potentially as suggested above playing finals, semis and conceivably even quarter-finals at a single venue in a single week) with no in-season “relegation” from Champions’ League to Europa League;
  • playing all other cup competitions as one match straight to penalties.

Conceivably the European Championships could in this instance be played in the break between seasons which may be in November, either 2020 or 2021, in line with the subsequent World Cup. There is also a case for exceptionally abbreviating the Euros and playing them on a straight knock-out basis (perhaps eight of the 24 qualified teams would get a bye and the tournament would simply proceed by knock-out from there).

By the way, completing the season means completing the season. If, as one commentator bizarrely suggested, you “axe” the FA Cup just for the sake of seven games, then you may as well never play it again. (The fact this was even suggested just shows how far that competition has fallen, sadly.)

Complete the season and move to calendar year seasons permanently

The most radical option (given that on any of these options completing the current season means delaying it until after the summer) is simply to switch football so that it is played by calendar year. The extended 2019/20 season would end in the autumn followed by a winter European Championship, and then we would move into a full 2021 club season in the new year. This would enforce a winter break (already in place in most leagues) which would now split seasons, perhaps accompanied by a summer break likely typically used for international competitions of various kinds after the 2022 World Cup.

There will be politics in this too, of course. Abbreviating a season will make it obvious that some tournaments take far too long anyway – for example what, really, is the point of the “Europa League Group phase” and who would miss it if it were just abolished permanently? Do we really need so much football at all?

Like many things associated with this pandemic, there are no easy choices.

 

Football rule changes to be taken direct from hockey?

I have written before on the difference between (Association) football refereeing and (field) hockey umpiring, and about commonalities or otherwise in rule changes.

However, football authorities in the Netherlands have announced they intend to trial five rule changes at lower levels – each of which is directly taken from hockey.

Could this work?

Self-pass

One of the most popular recent changes in hockey was the introduction of the “self pass”, meaning that free hits may be dribbled as well as passed.

This is more complicated than it looks, however. The whole purpose of the “self pass” would be to allow (presumably specifically direct) free kicks to be taken more quickly. However, this requires clear regulations around enforcing the location of the kick (and that the ball is stopped), establishing when the kick is actually taken, and allowing opponents to be within ten yards of a quickly taken kick provided they don’t attempt to interfere with play before the ball has gone ten yards. These are all fairly alien concepts to football and, although they would become less alien with time, they may mean the whole thing proves too great a change.

Kick-ins

Sideline hits replaced roll-ins in hockey over half a century ago, but of course throw-ins remain in football. They are something of an aberration.

The trial is to try kick-ins. However, they have been tried before. A full experiment was carried out in the lower leagues in England in the ‘90s. In practice, they led to more long ball play and less skill, and were thus swiftly abandoned. There is little reason to expect any difference this time.

Set playing time

In hockey, time is maintained precisely – the umpires (or timers at the technical table) have a specific signal for stopping time (e.g. for an injury, a decision review or a lost ball) and when time is up the whistle is blown or hooter sounded (even if, for example, a player is just about to shoot).

Football has a theoretically more untidy system of the referee adding time as stoppages, indicating after 45 minutes how much minimum added time is to be played, and then blowing for time when the ball is safely away from either penalty area. The proposal is to replace this with precise timing – when time is stopped it is stopped, and when time is up it is up.

However, is debatable whether hockey’s system is practical in a sport with only one on-field official like football. In hockey, umpires may agree that if the timing umpire is “busy” as time expires, the other may blow for time; in football, the risk would be that the referee would miss a big late decision by being distracted checking the watch. In any case, I am not entirely sure what the problem is with football’s system that this would fix.

Rolling substitutes

While, as in football, hockey is played by teams of eleven on the field, in fact hockey is played by teams of sixteen (or up to eighteen in some tournaments and some circumstances) eleven of whom may be on the field at any one time. There is no limitation in hockey (outdoors, at least) on the number of substitutions a team may make or on the number of times a player may be substituted on or off.

Although precise details are not yet available, the proposal is to make football the same – two teams of fourteen or perhaps sixteen playing with eleven on the field at any time. Substitutions would be unlimited.

In principle, this seems to be a natural progression. Football has increased the number of substitutions from one, to two, to three, to now four in the event of extra time. There seems no particular reason for a substitution to be permanent, although there may be a case for restrictions. Hockey does not, for example, allow substitutions during penalty corners (to stop penalty corner specialists entering the field only to participate in them and then go off again). Should football teams be allowed to “bring on the big man” only at corners or attacking set pieces? Should they be allowed free-kick or long throw specialists who otherwise spend most of their time on the bench? Goalkeepers who specialise particularly in saving penalties? Could you end up with baseball-style “closers”, perhaps central defensive partnerships who specialise in holding on to leads for the last 15 minutes? There are risks with this too, therefore.

Sin bins

Hockey has four grades of discipline – a spoken warning, a warning and a two-minute suspension from play (green card), a five or ten-minute suspension (yellow card), and a permanent suspension (red card). Yellow and red cards are generally reported (they are considered disciplinary breaches, whereas even though it does involve a period of suspension a green card is still considered a warning).

Football currently has just two – a warning (yellow card) and a permanent suspension (red). The proposal is to add a third, already in long-standing use in some amateur leagues in Germany and elsewhere (still indicated by a yellow card), which would suspend a player for a few minutes. Where this exists, it is most commonly used for dissent or foul language, essentially to allow the player to calm down before returning to play.

The challenge for football is how it would react to further subjectivity, given there is already widespread debate over what “is a yellow” or “is a red”. In hockey, cards ultimately are tools used by umpires to control the game and ensure that skilful play is protected and rewarded; notably, the rules even allow the same player to receive the same card provided it is for a different offence (although tournament regulations frequently remove this option, with minor technical exceptions). Could football deal with such variation?

Conclusion

These are interesting proposals and there is no harm at all is trying them out.

I am doubtful, however, if they will really work in practice. Football and hockey often look deceptively similar, but they are ultimately profoundly different sports and therefore taking rules directly from one to the other may be easier said than implemented.

“Round of 16” and other linguistic oddities

Topically, I was discussing this week the linguistic oddity whereby the Irish Head of Government retains his Irish-Language title “An Taoiseach”, the German and Austrian equivalent retains the translation “Chancellor”, but Scandinavian and Southern European countries have theirs referred to as “Prime Minister” even though that is not a direct translation of the title used in the native language.

Sometimes this issue becomes broader. A friend ran a recent series on social media running through the six Ancient Greek notions all translated into English by the single word “love” – albeit allowing for differing descriptions in English of that love, generally using adjectives themselves borrowed from Greek (“platonic”, “erotic”, also the suffix “-phile”; there is also even the “Agape Centre” on Belfast’s Lisburn Road). This, like the apocryphal “100 words for snow in Eskimo”, leads us to the most profound linguistic debate of all – does language represent our conceptualisation of things, or determine it…?

The differences can be more subtle. This week saw the first knock-out round of the Champions’ League get underway, referred to in English by the title “Round of 16”. This is odd, however, because the next round will not be the “Round of 8”, but rather the “quarter-finals”. World Cups and now European Championships (as isn’t it odd that English refers to one of those as a “Cup” and another as a “Championship” – German, perfectly logically, refers to them both as Meisterschaft “Championship”) under current format also have first knock-out round of sixteen teams referred to as the “Round of 16”. The oddness is magnified by the fact no other Western European language allows this irregularity – German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian all refer to this round as the “eighth-final”, logically, as the round before the “quarter-final”.

German is particularly logical here, but there is a quirky Ulster culinary link.

German forms its fractions simply through the number plus the suffix –tel, cognate with teil “part”. Thus “eighth” is acht “eight” plus –tel, giving achtel “eight-part, eighth”; “quarter” or literally “fourth” is vier plus –tel giving viertel.

Viertel is the interesting one, because older forms of English also did it the same way, yielding the word “fardel”, meaning “quarter-part”. The word “fardel” has been shortened in time to “farl”. This is the word we now find in “soda farl”, originally a quarter-piece of the bread.

There is the magic of linguistics, linking the World Cup to an Ulster Fry…

The fundamental point here is that even relatively simple concepts can be expressed markedly differently in various languages, simply as a matter of custom. It is these sorts of things which will usually catch out even a relatively proficient non-native speaker.

Meanwhile, the World Cup will from 2026 add a “Round of 32”. Will that be the “sixteenth-final” in other languages? Time will tell…

Harry Gregg – a true star, hero and gentleman

29D41642-85F8-47E3-BC46-EE5D55BEFEBAIn early 1998 I was visiting a school near Cologne and was introduced to one of the teachers. He asked what was, in those days, that horribly awkward question for people from pre-Agreement Northern Ireland – “Where are you from?”

I gave my response and expected the usual reply.

But on this occasion his reply was different: “Nordirland? Ah, Harry Gregg!

It so happened that as a younger man the teacher had taken a trip to the World Cup thirty years earlier to follow then World Champions West Germany. In the group stages they had come up against Northern Ireland – and Harry Gregg had forced them to settle for a draw.

That was the scale of the man. He was an international star. And a gentleman. And a hero.

RIP.

VAR and the concept of “truth”…

I was struck by a Twitter thread recently which made me think of this somewhat unsatisfactory exchange between former average player Robbie Savage and former World Cup Final referee Howard Webb. Mr Savage, who admittedly probably is not a candidate for Mensa, simply could not grasp how the same tackle could be a yellow card in some instances but not in others.

The concept is in fact quite simple. If you are driving along a road in the early afternoon at 33mph in perfect conditions just after entering a 30mph limit and you are spotted by a police officer, that officer will almost certainly take no action at all. However, drive the same speed on a dark, icy weekday morning past a school, and you will almost certainly earn yourself a fine and points towards a ban. The offence is, of course, identical – but the context is entirely different and police officers are quite open about the fact they have discretion to determine whether or not to penalise the offence.

Remember, over-penalising would be self-defeating – human nature is such that constantly fining people for going 33mph would probably make them likely just to go faster so at least any fines felt worth it! There is a sense, both for the officer and the offender, that the penalty has to be reasonable – literally a “fair cop”.

The same applies on the sports field. It is quite obvious that a fairly reckless but not particularly malicious tackle will earn a quiet word in some instances but a yellow card in the context of a game which is already heated or which is tight going into the final twenty minutes or so. As Mr Webb tried to explain, except he kept being talked over, bringing out the cards too early can lead to having to use a second card (thus red and a dismissal) for two fairly innocuous offences, unbalancing the game as a spectacle and denying us the sense that the outcome was fair; conversely, not bringing out the cards when things are tense and heated can lead to an escalation and the game getting out of hand, depriving us of the spectacle by other means.

In hockey, likewise, the implementation of, for example, the five-metre distance rule will necessarily vary depending on the context. Did the player genuinely think she was five metres away or was it obvious that she was not? Was she standing where she was cynically, or just unthinkingly? Did she even know the rule? (One coach wanted me to dismiss a player in a pre-season friendly with her team already 3-0 down for breaching a five-metre technicality even though she had never played before and actually had to ask for an explanation of the rule afterwards – according to a strict interpretation of the rules he was right of course and it is quite possible an assessor would have marked me down for taking no action, but I stand by my belief that for the good of the game we want players new to the game to keep playing it…)

This then leads us to the core problem with VAR, at least as implemented in the Premier League. VAR promises us the “right decision”. However, the “right decision” does not just depend on an objective reading of the incident which has occurred. There is also, in fact, a subjective reading (assessing, for example, the level of cynicism or recklessness in a tackle, or the level of intent or advantage behind a handball, or whatever); and then there is also the context. Fundamentally everyone knows, at heart, that a careless tackle is sometimes yellow and sometimes not; and a very careless lunge is sometimes red and sometimes not (the Germans have a great phrase dunkelgelb, “dark yellow”, for that). In fact, even if we would probably admit it through gritted teeth, we kind of know that offside by five yards is different from offside by five inches…

The reality of officiating – be it refereeing football, umpiring hockey or for that matter policing traffic violations – is that there is an element of subjectivity and even personality involved, and context matters. That is the crux of our problem with VAR – it is making us promises it cannot really keep…

VAR too willing to interfere…

Yesterday did not go well in my sporting world as first the Arsenal football team and then the Ireland hockey team were denied by officials in a booth watching a video rather than on the field watching the play directly. This was more frustrating because the whole point of video reviews is to get more things right – but in this case, even objectively, it caused two things to go wrong. It is worth emphasising, however, that this was in my view because of human error in the use of the video review (and the broader over-reliance on it), rather than the basic notion of video review itself.

Before we get to directly to the cases involved, it is worth noting the standard caveat. Football and hockey matches are not decided by one decision, but by thousands – by officials, but also (in fact mainly) by players and coaches. Was Arsenal’s team selection really optimal? Did Ireland not waste its own video reviews? Were there not countless chances spurned by all teams involved throughout their respective games? Of course there were. So it worth emphasising that officials bear the brunt of our ire, particularly for decisions late in the game, because they are an easy target. It is much easier, especially in the immediate aftermath, to plead not guilty on behalf of our own team and heap blame onto officials than to assess our own performance in detail.

That notwithstanding, all did not go well for the video officials yesterday. Firstly, at the Emirates, Arsenal thought they had nicked a later winner having thrown away a two-goal lead at home to Crystal Palace. No one on the field thought there was anything remotely wrong when Sokratis fired home a likely winner, which was then reported on all relevant channels as having made the score 3-2. A minute or so later, the decision was mysteriously overturned. The game finished 2-2.

A few hours later on the other side of the world, Ireland held a 6-5 aggregate lead over Canada in an Olympic qualifying playoff as, literally in the last second of the game, Canada attacked on the left hand of the circle. An attacker ended up on the floor, the final whistle went, and Ireland had qualified. However, Canada had nothing to lose in using its final referral (in hockey, a little like tennis, teams may refer big decisions to the video umpire for as long as they don’t get one wrong), and out of seemingly nowhere a penalty stroke was awarded. This was converted, and the playoff then went to a shootout which Canada won in sudden death. Ireland certainly felt like it.

It is just about possible that Arsenal’s Calum Chambers did clip a Crystal Palace defender in the lead-up to the disallowed goal (although having seen it several times, it is frankly more possible that a Palace defender clipped him). It is just about possible that the Canadian attacker was indeed felled by an Irish nudge or trip in the final second (although at least from the angle we saw it is equally possible the trip was in fact caused by his own stick as he sped forward in desperation). In both cases the on-field decision was no foul, and in neither case was that decision anything like a “clear and obvious error”.

In football’s case, the situation is made more bizarre by the revelation that the decision to penalise Chambers and disallow the goal was made in a booth by someone not qualified to referee Premier League matches. At least in hockey’s case, it’s a fully qualified top level official in the booth (although, astonishingly, in this case they gave the official a playoff as his second ever and first international game).

Ultimately this was always the risk with video review. The video official almost feels obliged to see something to justify their presence. But this is absolutely not the point of video review.

Video review is meant merely to be an extra aid to the on-field official. Video officials are not there actually to officiate the game. Hence the requirement, stated specifically and overtly in football, for VAR to correct only “clear and obvious” errors. The aim is to deliver less controversy, not more!

It can be done right. Crystal Palace was awarded a penalty and Canada a penalty corner both resulting in a goal by video review correctly applied (whatever former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg likes to claim) to overturn a clear and obvious error earlier in their respective clashes. However, to take the final decision away from the on-field official is not the point and needs to be stopped swiftly.

In the case of football, an obvious issue is that the Premier League, unlike the World Cup or the Bundesliga, does not use pitch-side monitors for the referee to make the final decision. Even in hockey, it is peculiar that the video official not only states a yes/no answer in response to the on-field official’s question about happened, but also the details of anything that happened around it and specifically what the penalty should be. In each case, the final actual decision should be left with the on-field official – otherwise we are close to the point where in fact the better qualified official will need to be the one in the booth!

Fundamentally, the lesson here is that video reviews have their place, but they are now interfering far too often. Consultation with the video is fine, but it is time to restore the final decision-making to the on-field officials.