Listen to this article
A warning for any Tottenham Hotspur fans tuning in to Sunday night's Super Bowl in Jacksonville between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles: be prepared to feel a twinge of envy. Maybe even two or three. At some point during the game, one of the teams will almost certainly invoke its right to challenge a ruling by the referees; an official will promptly scurry over to the sidelines, peer into a monitor, and view the play in question from a variety of angles. He will then return to the field and announce, with neither a hint of satisfaction or contrition in his voice, that "upon further review" the original call stands or is reversed.
At which point, any Tottenham fans watching will surely emit one last primal scream over the bungled call that deprived Spurs of a goal and almost certain victory against Manchester United last month; a Pedro Mendes strike in the final minutes was not declared a goal because the officials failed to see that the ball had clearly crossed the line. The error ignited demands for some means of double-checking refereeing decisions.
Football fans in general - fans of European football, that is - have good reason to feel shortchanged at present. North America's National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association both have instant replay; it is being used to review decisions in cricket and rugby, as well. Baseball is toying with the idea, and even tennis, perhaps the ultimate "the eyes have it" sport, is on the verge of going to the videotape. Following the officiating debacle during last year's US Open quarter-final between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, and several awful calls at last month's Australian Open, tennis is expected to introduce some form of instant replay before the year is out. (Of course, had tennis featured instant replay in the late 1970s and early 1980s, John McEnroe would have had no reason to throw his now-immortal tantrums, and all those priceless turns of phrase - "You guys are the absolute pits of the world" and "Answer the question, jerk!" - would have gone unuttered. Come to think of it, is tennis sure it really wants to take this step?)
But it is the National Football League that has the longest experience of instant replay and the most evolved review mechanism. An appeals procedure was introduced in 1986, discontinued in 1991, then reinstated in 1999. Six years on, the system has become nearly as complicated as the game itself.
Teams are allowed two appeals a game, which they are permitted at any point except the last two minutes of either half (when the referees alone have the option of reviewing plays). If an appeal is unsuccessful, a team loses one of its time-outs (three time-outs are allotted per half); if, however, a team successfully challenges two calls in a game, it earns a third challenge if it wants one.
A coach has to throw a red flag on to the field to initiate an appeal and must do so before the next play begins. The referees are given 90 seconds - a generous 90 seconds in most instances - to review calls. The current menu of reviewable decisions includes scoring plays, intercepted passes, incomplete passes, illegal passes, illegal contact with the ball, fumbles and ineligible players on the field.
Sports fans being sports fans, there are naturally numerous gripes about the NFL's instant replay. It is criticised for upsetting the flow of the game, despite gridiron, with its 10-second plays and 45-second huddles, not exactly being known for having much flow. A more serious complaint is that penalties cannot be appealed against. Pass interference is usually the stiffest penalty in football and the one most likely to sway the outcome of a game, yet it is not subject to review.
Another oft-claimed defect is that instant replay has turned officiating into hair-splitting. For instance, what used to be a relatively straightforward call - is it a fumble? - now turns on whether a knee or elbow hit the ground before the ball popped loose.
Last March, the NFL decided to extend instant replay another five seasons rather than make it permanent, and three of the 32 teams - the Cincinnati Bengals, the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs - voted to do away with it altogether.
Should instant replay somehow influence the result of Sunday's Super Bowl, you can probably add either the Eagles or the Patriots to the list of dissenters.
WHISPERS OF PATRIOT DYNASTY MAY BE JUST ENOUGH TO CLIP SOARING EAGLES’ WINGS
When New England Patriots, the defending champions, and the Philadelphia Eagles take the field for Super Bowl XXXIX, it will be the match nearly everyone craved and almost no one expected. The Eagles reached the semi-finals in each of the three seasons before this one, only to bungle their chances each time. Two weeks ago, they at last cleared the penultimate hurdle, defeating the Atlanta Falcons to set up a clash with the Patriots.
The Patriots find themselves perched on dynasty’s doorstep: a win on Sunday will bring them their third NFL title in four years, a distinction achieved by only one other team, the 1993-1996 Dallas Cowboys. The Patriots, who finished the regular season 14-2, have waged a Shermanesque march in reverse to get back to the Super Bowl, travelling from north to south and convincingly beating the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers en route to Jacksonville.
The Patriots are favoured by a touchdown, which seems about right. Experience is on their side; the Eagles were last in the Super Bowl in 1981, and given the three semi-final losses that preceded this year’s breakthrough victory, their grit under pressure is open to question. Not so Tom Brady, the New England quarterback, who is 8-0 as a starter in play-off games and blessed with a steely composure that calls to mind the legendary Joe Montana. If any player is likely to make the difference on Sunday, it is surely Brady.
One ray of hope for the Eagles: the Patriots lived on the edge in their two previous Super Bowl victories, winning by just a field goal.