Sunday, April 17, 2011

After the batteries die

Ah, the good old days. I remember a time when soccer was played with the most minimal equipment. In fact, that is the primary reason for its world-wide success: you can play it anywhere with nothing but a small object that serves as a ball. It did not have to be a ball either, it could be something as simple as a ball of rags or small stone, or a stuffed leather pouch as was commonly used over two millennia ago in Asia when the game was taking shape. In medieval times they used a human head as the ball. No shoes; no shinguards: no problem!

OK, so maybe I do not personally remember using a human head as a ball, but I certainly remember the time before shinguards became mandatory. In my early days, I played goalkeeper without them, and even without gloves. The only item of "protective" gear I wore was a soft knit hat on my head, and that was to keep my ears from freezing in the cold weather. (Later, FIFA outlawed them because players were using them as a helmet of sorts, and playing too aggressively. I have to admit that I did take to wearing the hat on some very warm days too for that reason.)

Now things are different. We need equipment. And for the referees, we need even more equipment than the players! How could that be?! From the flipping coin to the final whistle, we are handling equipment that we can do without. If you truly are a student of the game's history, you may realize that none of this stuff was necessary in the beginning. Red and yellow cards were only developed a scant 50 years ago. Even the indispensible whistle has only been around for a little more than a century. How was it that this game was played for over 2000 years without a whistle!!

We are now entering the era of spray paint and the battery-operated device. Beepers flags and wireless radios are tools of any well-equipped professional referee, and no doubt coming to a field near you. Will goal-line lasers or balls embedded with micro-chips be far behind?

Is this a good thing for our game? Is it no longer possible for an officiating crew to manage a game without electronic tools to communicate with each other? And if this is such a good idea, should the players also wear them so they can also talk to each other and receive real-time instruction from their coaches?

Don't get me wrong - I think some of the new equipment is good for the game. Certainly the use of a standard sized air-filled sphere instead of a human head made for more accurate passing. As for most of the rest of the advancements since then, I am not so sure.

And when it comes to refereeing, I lament the encroachment of technology. It is a simple game, certainly we can manage it as such. Sure, there may be an occasional mistake by the refereeing crew, but isn't that a part of the game? Don't the players make mistakes too? Aren't humans flawed and don't we celebrate that? Isn't that why a game is played in the first place?

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