Person of the weekend: referee Germán Delfino – a pioneer of video technology?

The new 30-team Primera División is now eight weeks old in Argentina and, if nothing else, it’s proving so far that if you increase by 50% the number of top flight matches each weekend, you’re going to get a bump in the amount of controversy, as well. On Saturday we saw perhaps the strangest such event yet – and certainly the most potentially pioneering, as Germán Delfino, refereeing Vélez Sarsfield v Arsenal de Sarandí, appeared to change his mind over a penalty decision based on a TV replay seen by the fourth official.

With the match locked at 1-1, a ball was played into the box which Vélez forward Mariano Pavone went up for with Arsenal defender Dany Rosero Valencia. Pavone handled, but Delfino, unsighted, thought the ball had hit Rosero Valencia’s arm and gave a penalty, sending off the defender. So far, so normal – these mistakes happen all the time, after all.

As Arsenal inevitably protested, though, something seemed to change Delfino’s mind. He seemed to talk on his mouthpiece, and then he picked the ball up, even as Milton Caraglio was waiting to take the penalty against his old club. The penalty was cancelled, Rosero Valencia was called back onto the pitch and told he could continue the game, and Arsenal were awarded a free kick with Pavone booked for the hand ball.

The controversy came immediately. If Delfino changed his mind, then all is well and good, however unusual the situation was. But Vélez’s bench made it very clear what they thought had happened; the fourth official had seen a TV replay, and from that had advised the referee that the decision had been a bad one. A TV image of one of the pitchside television producers covering his mouth whilst talking to the fourth official during the period between the award of the penalty and its reversal didn’t help matters.

It’s not Delfino’s first time in the spotlight this year; in the sixth weekend match between Atlético de Rafaela and Rosario Central, he was hit by something thrown from the crowd (there’s been an epidemic of this behaviour this year in the Primera) and needed medical attention before continuing the game – combined with similar incidents in other matches, this led the Argentine referees’ unions to begin talking about a change to Argentine FA regulations to allow referees to cancel matches more easily in the event of such trouble.

Delfino is a proponent of technology being used to help referees; he was recently interviewed by the online TV show Arroban Fútbol Show and told them, ‘At some point I think something else is going to come in. [Whether the ball has crossed the goal line] is very easy because it’s objective, not subjective. It happened 100%, or it didn’t. One thing is that it’s very expensive, so it could be hard to implement in Argentine stadia.’ In reply to another panel member opining that refereeing error is part of the game, he said, ‘Right, everyone understands that – well, fine, but then…’ before unfortunately being talked over (this clip shows the exchange – Delfino is the one in the white Nike t-shirt).

Two years ago, I interviewed Horacio Elizondo, who’s known to most of the world outside Argentina as the man who sent Zinedine Zidane off for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. Elizondo told me he had acted on the advice of his fourth official (neither he, following play at the other end of the pitch, nor the linesmen had seen what had happened), and that the fourth official had seen the headbutt from his position on the touchline. When the interview took place, no-one had asked Elizondo how much of a part television replays had played in the decision, but he explained that the only screen the fourth official could have seen a replay on was located around 10 yards behind his position between the two team benches – everyone would have seen him moving to the screen, if that had been the case, and he didn’t. The same is not of course true of the much more congested touchline area at Vélez Sarsfield’s stadium.

All the same, I asked Elizondo whether he thought technology could be used in the game – after all, the rest of us can debate the point all we like, and television companies can push the idea for their own ends, but a man who’s refereed numerous River Plate v Boca Juniors superclásicos, as well as three Copa Libertadores finals and of course that World Cup final perhaps knows more than we do about the pressures of making a decision quickly and in front of a baying crowd. You can read the final, published interview in issue eleven of The Blizzard, if you’re curious.

‘Ah, technology! I believe that when there’s a case where the doubt and confusion is that big, that important, and involves something that’s going to affect the development of the match in such a major way, I think so, yes,’ Elizondo told me. ‘Let’s see. Technology today is a very useful tool. Football – the rules of football, for the most part – are totally subjective, not objective. That is, there are very few things in football which you can measure. Goal or no goal, ball on or off the pitch, those are things you don’t have to interpret, whereas whether a foul was inside or outside the penalty box, or offside decisions – was he off when he received the ball or not? But in which phase? Because when the referee has to decide to sanction an offside that was about a player moving into position to distract an opposing player [without receiving the ball], it becomes interpretative. It’s become subjective.’

It is, I think, safe to say that in those terms, the incident on Saturday between Vélez and Arsenal was objective – and leaving aside for a moment the rights and wrongs by FIFA regulations of whether the decision is legally valid if television was used, the fact remains that the correct decision ended up being taken.

‘I’d like to see just that, how technology could be used a little to see whether football can incorporate it within the rules of the game – to start with, how technology and those rules can live with one another, how they adapt, and afterwards, going forward, to see whether we can use it for other points in the game, perhaps,’ Elizondo also told me.

In years to come, perhaps Germán Delfino will be remembered as the pioneer of a brave new moment in refereeing. But for now, he’d better stick to the official AFA line that the decision didn’t involve any replays at all, or one of the continent’s better referees might be in some very hot water.

Oh, and the game? Vélez went on to win it 2-1 – with Milton Caraglio scoring the winner from a penalty awarded for a foul on Mariano Pavone. I suppose that’s poetic, in a way.

Elsewhere in the Primera this weekend, there were wins for Boca Juniors (2-0 away to Huracán), who thus remain top of the table, and also for River Plate (1-0 at home to San Lorenzo), Argentinos Juniors (1-0 away to Lanús, ending Lanús’ 21 game unbeaten home record) and Belgrano (3-1 away to Sarmiento). Racing drew 1-1 away to Estudiantes, Independiente drew 1-1 at home to Gimnasia, and probably the game of the round (there are two still to go at the time of writing) was Defensa y Justicia’s 3-3 draw at home to title hopefuls Rosario Central. We’ll be rounding up the action and going over the main talking points as ever on Hand Of Pod episode 179, which we’ll be recording later in the week.

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