VAR – What Is It Good For?

By Bill Thomas

 

The Video Assisted Referee concept is gradually worming its way into the game, having operated – badly – at the Confederations Cup last summer, in Serie A and MLS amongst other leagues, and now in selected games in the FA Cup. 

 

From the outset, I must nail my colours to the mast and say that from day one, I’ve been against the concept. For me, goal line technology is fine, it’s a matter of fact, not interpretation nor opinion, and the results are instant, the ball is over the line or it isn’t, simple. But beyond that, to take other decisions to video technology, to watch them back again and again? That way lies insanity.

 

While VAR’s proponents will argue, with some justification, that it will mean more decisions are correct, the price the game will have to pay to get there is too high, like curing an outbreak of food poisoning in a Chicago cafe by nuking Illinois.

 

Last weekend’s FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Brom underlined pretty much everything that is wrong about the idea, both in principle and in deed. That some were still insisting that all it needs is “a few tweaks” is merely an indication of just how susceptible we are to the promise of technology being able to solve all mankind’s ills, even the ones that don’t exist.

 

There’s nothing inherently awful about a mistaken refereeing decision that a healthy adult sense of perspective can’t handle. So it shouldn’t have been a goal / should have been a penalty. So what? Who died? But in this age of moral panic where we are constantly sold the pretence that everything can be fixed and that we can live on a perfect planet – have you looked out of the front door recently? – then the idea that somebody could get something wrong is apparently intolerable.

 

It is, of course, the exact opposite, particularly in the sporting arena which is a supposedly safe haven where we can act out some of our baser emotions without real consequences – “war without the shooting”, as Orwell had it. When things go wrong in sport, it gives us an opportunity to learn how to handle such setbacks. We say that kids learn best through play and so it might be that adults develop best through sport.

 

This drive for perfection is trying to remove sport’s great ethos, that it builds character, it presents you with Kipling’s two impostors, triumph and disaster and asks if you can handle both. Further than that, it asks you to be graceful in the face of injustice at times which is as important a life skill as you can get because going through a normal day, you’re going to face dozens of them between getting up and going to bed.

 

Are we going to have VAR to get you back the sales deal you just lost to the company that handed out a better bribe? Or to get you on the bus that should have stopped for you but didn’t? Life’s hard, then you die. Sport helps you work on your coping mechanisms, it builds character, ethical behaviour at its best. Should we toss all that away?

 

If that argument against it doesn’t float your boat, what about the fact that it makes no logical sense on pretty well any level? In the FA Cup for instance, most games aren’t covered by VAR. On Saturday night, Liverpool got a penalty that the ref missed. Somewhere in the course of the same competition, maybe the same round, another team playing a VARless fixture will have been denied the same penalty and will have gone out of the cup as a result. There goes the integrity of the competition, the playing field completely skewed.

 

You can argue that that issue could be dealt with by putting the technology in at all games, though I think you’d struggle to do that in the first qualifying round when you’ve got little more than pub teams playing. But let’s assume that’s possible. Next question, and a far more important one in many ways. Why do we think it’s right to hold referees to a higher standard than footballers?

 

People are supposedly frothing at referees getting decisions wrong. So, take the Liverpool game again, referee Pawson is castigated for getting the Salah penalty decision wrong. Ultimately, it was overturned, after we’ve completely undermined the referee’s authority and questioned his competence. But all that matters is we’ve got the “right” decision. And then Firmino misses from the spot by making his own wrong decision from the spot. If we are so determined to get things right, perhaps we should say that if he’d made the right decision, he’d have scored and so award the goal anyway? That’s the ultimate logical extension of the drive for perfection. (We might also ask why the ref wasn’t told that Foster moved before the kick was taken and so there should have been a retake, but we’ll let that pass).

 

This undermining of referees is one of the most damaging elements of the whole issue though. From the first time Pawson called for assistance – or was told to – his confidence, and that of his assistants, was shattered. Thereafter, they were frightened to make decisions and had perpetual recourse to the VAR ref elsewhere. The ref looked shell shocked by the end of the first half, which might explain why only four minutes were added on when the Salah penalty deliberations took double that.

 

During that delay, as well as the ones over two of Albion’s goals, the crowd inside Anfield had absolutely no idea what was going on. Some have suggested that every club therefore needs huge video screens – and who is going to be paying for them? – but that ignores one big issue. In England at least, you are not allowed to show any controversial incidents on the big screen for fear of inciting the crowd. Oh…

 

If that is a reasonable fear, it also makes you wonder if VAR might not start riots. Go back to the Liverpool game. Assume that instead of Salah being fouled in the box, it had been Rodriguez. Then assume Liverpool had broken up the other end and Firmino had scored. While he’s celebrating, the ref is advised to look at the Rodriguez incident, whereupon after five minutes, he chalks off the Liverpool goal, Albion get a penalty and score. Then assume it happened in the last minute with the scores locked at 1-1. You see the potential for conflict?

 

But all of these are as nothing to the biggest issue of the lot. By interrupting the flow of the game, you are creating a new sport and it isn’t football. Football flows, it barely stops for breath, it ebbs and flows and keeps going and therein lies its unassailable USP. Seven minutes to find out if it was a penalty or not? That’s distorting the game into something else. We will lose the essential element that makes football so exciting and absorbing. Once you turn football into a sport with time outs and unnatural breaks, its charm, its breathless excitement, they’re gone and so is football.

 

VAR is Pandora’s Box. Open it and the game dies.

 

Match referee Craig Pawson disallows a third goal by WBA’s Craig Dawson after a discussion with the Video Assistant Referee.

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david@firsttouchonline.com