VAR From Ideal

From the Rage Online newsdesk Sunday, December 2nd, 2018  

Written by Will Green, making his Rage Online debut

We all love football. At least, most of us do. Once you start following a team, you’re stuck with them for life. Unfortunately, my dad has unwittingly saddled me with Oxford United – only a nine-hour round trip to see them play at home. Oh well, they’re the best team in the world, right?

Football is not black and white (even in Newcastle). Football is subjective, and much of the enjoyment we get from it comes from controversy. That’s why you talk about football for days after the game. That’s why it’s the most popular sport in the world – that, and its ability to surprise, to shock, the epic tale of David and Goliath written into the very fabric of the FA Cup, and every tournament all over the world. That’s why we cheered Wales in 2016. That’s why, in the same year, we celebrated Leicester City. The story of the underdog is one that pervades all sport, but, seemingly, football in particular. Perhaps that’s simply because more people care. Then again, perhaps it’s not. Perhaps there’s something special about football.

But there’s a problem with football, a very real problem. The footballing elite haven taken a decision with huge ramifications for the future of the game – our game, with all its tiresome yet much-loved clichés. That decision is the implementation of VAR in the Premier League; and the fact that it comes after the World Cup, which served only to show the faults of VAR, casts even more doubt on the decision.

Even before the World Cup, there were a few issues with VAR. For a start, the pauses in play thanks to VAR are terrible to watch. Video referees are now checking every goal to see if there were any potential fouls in the build-up. Football is a contact sport, but it’s also a subjective sport, and one man’s violent shove is another man’s “competitive physical tussle”. So, after the ball has hit the back of the net, the ecstasy every football supporter enjoys must be put on hold. And fans must wait, for confirmation that their team’s scored a last-minute winner – or not. The thirty seconds of bliss after you score are why we all watch football anyway. Now even that’s being slowly eroded away.

We’re also now encouraging referees to recheck all their decisions using a team of fellow officials in the main stand (or even in a different part of the country, as we saw in the World Cup) – officials who play incidents in slow motion. The problem with this is that everything looks worse in slow motion. An accidental slip quickly becomes a brutal lunge designed to break the striker’s legs. The transition from real-time 3D onto a 2D screen risks overanalysis of every touch. And we’re not exactly going to breed efficient and high-quality referees with a constant backup behind them to check they haven’t made any mistakes. It’s the equivalent of having your mum standing over you in an A-Level exam. Referees need to be supported, not undermined, and the ability of VAR to call decisions independently of the on-pitch referee blatantly undercuts the referee’s authority (although, as we saw in the World Cup, in practice this rarely happens. What’s the point of having all this technology if you’re not going to use it?)

“Hold on!” I hear you cry. “What about goal-line technology? I bet you were furious in 2010, in your precious World Cup, when Lampard scored THAT goal, or rather didn’t, and the referee didn’t have a clue. And VAR works in other sports – why not in football?” Well, goal-line technology is instant – if a goal looks like it may have gone in, the referee just checks his watch – and goals are arbitrary – it has either crossed the line, or it hasn’t. Yet the vast bulk of decisions a referee must take are subjective – did the man go down too easily? If so, should he be booked for diving? Or was there contact? And if so, was it a sufficient contact to award a penalty? Yes, it’s true, several other sports do use VAR – cricket, rugby and hockey, to name a few. But cricket is a slow sport; a test lasting up to five days will not become unbalanced by an extra two minutes. In the highly charged footballing atmosphere, with only ninety minutes of play and a fifteen-minute gap in the middle, two minutes becomes quite a lot more. Rugby is also fairly slow – lots of scrums, tackles, often not that much progress. The few times during a game where there’s a sudden breakaway inevitably gets fans on their feet and commentators hoarsely screaming into the microphone. VAR in rugby, or TMO as they call it, usually only happens in breaks in play. But these breaks are so frequent that it makes more sense than in the end-to-end, free-flowing game of football. And who watches hockey? The introduction of VAR in the Premier League – supposedly the most exciting division in the world – will slow games, reduce attacking ability, and eventually turn off viewers.

To be fair, VAR will undoubtedly lead to fairer decisions, and most managers want it. The current retrospective punishment system is skewed, with, for example, a Chelsea player banned post-match after a match against Huddersfield unable to play the next few games – which may include some of Huddersfield’s rivals. The Terriers suffer both from the culprit’s continued presence on the pitch during their match with Chelsea, and then from the player’s absence against their closest enemies in the relegation battle. And some sort of real-time, in-match video analysis would undoubtedly help this situation.

However, VAR’s big moment in the spotlight, its trialling during the World Cup, was nothing but a failure. Penalty shouts were missed even with the technology. Unfair penalties were given. Harry Kane was rugby-tackled seventeen times against Tunisia and the VAR failed to notice (OK, I made that last one up). There were broader issues: it became the focus of coverage. For some reason, every commentator on 5 Live felt a need to refer to the system at least once every five minutes. VAR created controversy – the very controversy it was designed to eliminate. But this controversy wasn’t exciting; it just made the officiating team look incompetent. Referees failed to implement the system consistently; some relied upon the advice of the VAR team in Moscow; others asked for a screen to be brought to the touchline and made their decision watching the replay in slow motion. The game of football, which we know and love, descended into a mass of confusion that bewildered both players on the pitch and viewers back at home.

There’s bigger things at play here than just the World Cup, Premier League and VAR. As a fairly standard, if passionate, football fan, I’m fed up of the modern game, where the Premier League clubs get all the money from TV and the plight of teams further down the pyramid is ignored. Clubs are going out of business. Hartlepool, a local club with a rich League history, were relegated last season; they nearly went extinct this year. I’ve been to Hartlepool, just as I’ve been to Bury, Oldham, Rotherham, Scunthorpe and a host of other places, to see my team. I’ve seen how much fans care. Football is a social sport, a community activity, and the Premier League is selling fans down the river. The FA turn a blind eye because of the money coming into the country. The Premier League prioritises the quick buck and the foreign player over local talent to be nurtured over a decade – leading to a decline in English talent (this year notwithstanding).  Fans in the Premier League have to pay up to and over a thousand pounds for a season ticket, and VAR is merely the latest in a series of exploitative schemes which have seen football fans, especially in the Premier League, treated as irrelevances, in place of the all-powerful TV viewership figure gods. We’ve been transformed into cash cows – or perhaps calves, as it’s the huge cash heifer named Sky-BT which is fuelling the largest economic bubble since Holland’s 17th-century Tulip Mania.

My problem with VAR is not that it makes the game fairer. That’s the positive side of VAR – fewer incorrect decisions, which it would undoubtedly bring. But football belongs to the fans, the hundreds of thousands who turn up each week to watch their team play (last year’s Championship, the second level of English football, was the third best-attended division in Europe; Sunderland’s average attendance per game this season, in third-tier League One, is higher than that of France, Italy and Spain’s top leagues). It’s a mass participation sport which is slowly losing its charm, stifled by over-officious stewarding, ridiculous timetabling arrangements, unwanted trophies and sanitisation – and VAR is just another place where the fans have been relegated to a position of irrelevance. The money may be coming in now, but when the bubble bursts and TV cash vanishes, the sport will be left alone with the people it both needs the most and perhaps mistrusts the most: the fans themselves. Perhaps at that moment football will, finally, listen to its die-hard loyalists who have always been there. If we haven’t given up by then.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 2nd, 2018 at 12:46 am and appears under News Items. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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