| Spain's Fernando Morientes protests an off-side decision by an assistant referee during the 2002 World Cup quarter-final against South Korea. (Reuters)
London, Dec. 19: Football fans, be they from Mohun Bagan, Manchester United or Real Madrid have always been aware of this, of course, but when it comes to blowing the whistle for an off-side, the ref can and often does get it wrong.
Detailed analysis published in the current issue of the British Medical Journal, one of the leading scientific magazines in the world, says it is simply not possible for the human eye to absorb and compute all the information necessary for the referee to make the right decision on off-side.
The research paper, backed up with a huge amount of math, concludes that without the use of modern technology and television replays, a team which should win can end up losing and the team which should have lost can emerge victorious.
Therefore, there is scientific backing for the popular refrain of angry English fans who, before going on their traditional rampage, chant: 'We wuz robbed.'
The impressive research has been done by Dr Francisco Belda Maruenda, a family medicine specialist in Murcia, Spain, who examined the physiology of the human eye to see if it was able to process all the visual information needed to apply the off-side rule.
Now, there are growing calls in cricket to assess whether an umpire possesses the speed of eye required to simultaneously judge a no ball and an lbw, especially in the case of, say, hurricane merchants like Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee. Should the umpire's word really be final'
Maruenda poses two fundamental questions: 'Is the human eye able to detect an off-side offence' And what is the off-side law'
The answer to the second is: 'The law was introduced in 1866 and was written in the current version in 1925. To be in an off-side position, a player must not only be between the opponents' goal line and the last two players from the defending team, but must be actively involved with the game at the moment when he or she is passed the ball.'
There is an added dimension. 'The key factor in applying this rule correctly is that the player in question must be in the off-side position at the exact time when the ball is passed from a teammate, not when the player receives the ball or when the ball is en route between the players.'
The opinion is that the referee just has to see too many things at the same time.
'To apply the off-side rule correctly in a football game, the referee must be able to keep in his visual field at least five objects at the same time ' two players of the attacking team, the last two players of the defending team, and the ball. This is beyond the capacity of the human eye, which may explain why so many off-side decisions are controversial,' the research scholar says.
He suggests that 'the use of modern technology such as freeze frame television to aid referees' decisions is necessary for the off-side rule to be applied correctly'.
The consequences of an error in World Cup, international or league matches can be catastrophic in what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
'Competition in most leagues is fierce, and when referees make errors of judgement the consequences can be far reaching. Many rules in soccer are straightforward and are almost always applied correctly, but others are more prone to misjudgment. One of the most controversial rules to apply is that of off-side.'
Maruenda points out: 'An off-side position by one of the attacking players is penalised with an indirect free kick to the defending team, which ends the attackers' attempt to score a goal. Thus, when an off-side is wrongly given or when an off-side is not detected, a team may be wrongly deprived of or allowed a goal.'
The paper shows just how difficult it is for the referee, even backed up with two assistant referees, to get off-side decisions right.
'As more than four players are usually involved in a football action, focusing on all of them requires more time, thus increasing the chance of error,' Maruenda says.
'Football is a dynamic sport where players move fast and across the full area of the pitch. If we assume that an average player runs at a speed of 7.14 metres per second (equivalent to running 100 metres in 14 seconds), in 100 micro-seconds he will move by 71 centimetres. If he moves in a direction opposite to the defensive player, the relative change in position between the two will be even greater.'
From the referee's standpoint, 'the ideal condition would be when all the players and the ball are within the visual field', Maruenda says.
'If these objects are not all in the visual field, an off-side cannot be judged, and so the referee and the assistant referees will have to move their heads. The time that the eye needs to detect all the objects is the sum of the eye movements and the accommodation that it has to do,' the researcher states.
'Sometimes, it is evident that a referee has misjudged the position of players and unduly penalised one of the teams, but why does this happen' asks Maruenda
He returns to his basic argument. 'To apply the off-side rule correctly, the referee should be able to keep in his visual field at least five objects at the same time (two players of the attacking team, the last two players of the defending team, and the ball), and this may not be compatible with the normal eye function ' especially as these five objects can be anywhere within the defenders' half of the pitch, an area of at least 3,200 square metres.
'This may explain at least some of the instances when television replays of a game clearly show that the off-side rule was not properly implemented.'
Only an eye specialist will understand Maruenda's references to 'eye physiology' but even the lay person will appreciate that the referee's eyes have to make several sorts of movements. 'The eyes move to focus on objects and maintain them within their visual field. In doing so, they perform saccadic movements, smooth pursuit movements, vergence movements, vestibular movements, and accommodation.'
Maruenda says: 'By reviewing the physiology of the eye movements likely to be involved in assessing an off-side position, I have shown that the relative position of four players and the ball cannot be assessed simultaneously by a referee, and unavoidable errors will be made in the attempt.'
Maruenda and other eye specialists are now being pressed to turn their attention to the fallibility of cricket umpires. However, traditionalists say that cricket remains a gentlemen's game precisely because players are meant to accept an umpire's verdict with good grace.