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Sunday, April 15, 2012

It’s time for football’s Luddites to cross the line

That egregiously cruel race, the Grand National, was won by a nose yesterday. Officials looked at a photograph to ensure they awarded the win to the right nag.

Football is different though. If the refereeing rules of football had applied to Aintree’s showpiece, a middle-aged bloke would have tried to run alongside the thoroughbreds and then made an instant guess at which horse had crossed the line first.

Such a scenario is almost too ludicrous to contemplate. But today’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley proved once again that when it comes to the beautiful game, fact is stranger than fiction.

If you weren’t watching, two London clubs -- Spurs and Chelsea – were competing for a place in the final and a chance of silverware. A lot hangs on the game: money, a place in European competition, pride, history. You know, it’s important.

During the game, Chelsea took the lead late in the first half with a fantastic strike by Didier Drogba, a goal that came arguably against the run of play.

Shortly after the match restarted following the half-time interval, Chelsea scored again -- except they didn’t because the ball didn’t actually go into the goal. For reasons unknown, the referee, Martin Atkinson, decided he had seen the ball cross the line in what had been a confusing goalmouth scramble; a tangle of legs and flailing bodies.

So, yet again, we had the farcical situation of television viewers watching replays that clearly showed the ball remaining resolutely out of the goal while, on the pitch, Spurs players made desperate protests that the referee waved away.

It would have taken a matter of seconds for the ref to check whether or not the ball had crossed the line by watching a replay himself, but the rules forbid this. Instead he has to guess and stick to his guns.

This wouldn’t matter so much if it was only the players who were shafted by football’s archaic protocols: their lives are so blessed a bit of injustice might help build their characters.

But what of the fans: the people who follow their teams through thick and thin, and pay through their noses to do so? Why should their hopes and dreams be held to ransom by dodgy refereeing?

Whether it’s allowed goals that weren’t goals, disallowed goals that were goals, offside goals ruled onside, or onside goals ruled offside, the game of football is turning into a joke because it hasn’t yet dragged itself into the 21st Century.

In the end Chelsea won the game comfortably, 5-1. But when a hugely lucrative sport gives so much influence to guesswork, we shouldn’t be surprised when an official makes a costly balls-up.

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