Rethinking the whistle and how empty stadiums are changing match outcomes

Where I come from, my people have a saying that even the strongest brave is felled to the ground by a maize cob.

It is meant to warn that small things can bring down the best of us, destroy reputations or even the might of our most venerated institutions.


The whistle a referee uses to officiate a soccer match may be deemed a “small” thing despite its crucial role. Could lack of a proper one in this age of Covid-19 bring down the might of sports?


The question, which the proverb that brought it to mind might seem out of place, but there have been enough concerns to justify it.


Findings however show you can’t talk about the whistle without talking about the empty stadiums.

I therefore want to begin by first attempting to capture the pre-Covid-19 nostalgia.

Experts agree that until a vaccine against the virus is found, it may be a while before we spectate our favourite sports rubbing shoulders with other fans in the stadium.

While some leagues have started, including the popular English Premier League, the empty stadiums are some of the most disheartening results of this pandemic, both for the spectators who pack them and for those of us avid fans spectating the matches on TV screens.

The shrill tone of the whistle now sounds sharper in the empty stadiums, but this is what we are missing: the thrill of the noisy dynamic of players and the roar of spectators in live matches that makes fans watching the game on TV at their favourite joint feel like they are at the front seat in the stadium.

The traditional whistle however poses a practical problem. Using it entails drawing a deep breath and expelling it in a burst of air, letting out a lingering cloud of droplets and particles that could spread the virus.

It is known how some carriers of Covid-19 show no symptoms and may be unaware of their infection, thereby being unwitting spreaders. The referee can’t perform with a mask.

There is a solution however that many don’t know exists—an electronic whistle.

It is only now gaining some interest in some of the major leagues around the world, though it had been there for a number of years.

The handheld electronic whistle is activated by a push-button instead of blowing into it. It could become the new normal.

I want to believe as part of the preventive measures leagues in Africa are also considering it, and are already placing their orders with some of the manufactures. A Google search yields a variety of them.

However, like any new introduction that seeks to overthrow entrenched tradition, the whistle has had some referees loudly wondering whether it may not upend more than it seeks to address.

I was surprised to read in The New York Times how some veteran referees and officials are only now raising some practical concerns. I had expected they were already widely using the electronic whistle in the United States given the country’s level of the game and tech-savvy.

“Are they weatherproof? Do they work in the snow? Do they work in the rain?” one of them explained some of the queries. “And do we have to carry a spare battery around with us?”

Some wondered how an electronic whistle would be synced with the Precision Time System, a relatively new mechanism that uses the sound of referees’ whistles to stop the game clock.

If the electronic whistle presents a technological problem, I want to believe that removing the kink to enable it sync with the Precision Time System can easily be ironed out in the same inventiveness that made it possible.

In the meantime, we’ll be stuck with the empty stadiums, which apparently are changing game outcomes.

A new study makes this finding, adding that referees in soccer are now stricter without fans in the stadium to jeer or cheer their calls.

As reported by The New York Times, analytics firm Gracenote examined 83 German Bundesliga matches that have been played behind closed doors since the league's resumption in May.

It found that home teams were penalized more for fouls in empty stadiums than they usually were with fans present, while they have also been awarded an increased number of yellow cards.

Not only have home sides in the league won 10 per cent less games than they had pre-lockdown, they've also scored fewer goals, taken fewer shots, and attempted fewer crosses and dribbles.

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