CONTRIBUTORS: Betfred, The Standard, Jonathan Liew, chief sports writer of the Independent
It was sure to happen. Such a sea-change in football was always likely to be fraught with difficulty, but the furore over the wider implementation of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) in our game has still taken most of us by surprise – and NOT in a good way.
Let’s remind ourselves of the objectives of VAR, as outlined on the FIFA website. “When is VAR used? Three main incidents (plus one administrative) have been identified as game-changing. Goals, Penalty Decisions, Direct red card incidents, Mistaken identity.”
So VAR so good. Ish. One of the main talking points has been the forensic nature of goal reviews regarding offside. Many have those words ‘clear and obvious error’ ringing in their ears, while some will argue that you’re either off, or you’re not.
Armpits, toes, fingernails – we’ve had the lot, and the officials are taking things to the ‘nth’ degree, with no exceptions – or are they?
In the Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea, the spotlight shone upon another area where it might be seen as fairly black or white as to how the ‘moment’ is officiated and interpreted.
Tammy Abraham’s last, decisive, unsuccessful spot-kick (above) was saved by stand-in ‘keeper Adrian – what a week or so he’s having – but he clearly, VERY clearly, moved forward off his line in anticipation of the kick being taken. Look at the evidence above for yourself. That’s against the rules. Period.
If offside is forensically dissected, what about the goalkeeper during penalty-kicks? He moves forward or he doesn’t – and we can check – so surely the same relentless standards should be applied as to offside? OR both should be left under the ‘serious missed incidents’ or ‘clear and obvious errors’ umbrellas – not a bit of each here and there.
Talking of penalties – who on planet earth thought Adrian’s ‘challenge’ earlier on Abraham was a penalty kick? Astonishingly, even after VAR review, the original award of a penalty was confirmed.
Breathtaking. Adrian withdrew his hands late in the piece and didn’t touch the Chelsea striker, though anticipating a ‘clattering’ the forward went to ground anyway. No problem therefore with ‘simulation’ under the circumstances, but never a penalty offence.
There was talk of not all angles being available to the VAR officials when the review was taking place, which is concerning in the least, but the BT Sport coverage from behind the goal was clarity itself in showing the lack of intent, contact, of indeed any infringement of any kind.
This was a glorified, early-season, prestigious friendly – but these decisions, with consistency and transparency seemingly very low down on the list of priorities, will in the course of the season help decide titles, relegations, titanic knockout cup clashes, and all matters in between.
At the time of writing over this weekend, viewers of MOTD have been en masse on social media, posting their disbelief on VAR decisions that were not just controversial but the sheer number of them adding to the growing unrest on this visual intrusion of the beautiful game.
Yes, English football is finally enjoying its Brexit moment, and even if the stakes in the VAR debate are substantially lower, the similarities between the two – and the underlying trends beneath them – go well beyond the superficial.
Most sports, you see, have a built-in grey area: an innate ambiguity that admits – in certain cases – that a decision could legitimately be made either way. Subjective sports such as boxing and gymnastics have multiple judges to smooth out discrepancies of opinion and encourage consensus. Timed sports like athletics and cycling have the dead heat. And even after introducing replay technology, cricket retains a grey area known as the “umpire’s call”, stipulating that in exceptionally marginal circumstances, the original decision of the on-field umpire will hold sway.
Football’s grey area once resided in its unspoken but broadly accepted tolerance of refereeing error: unspoken because while maxims such as “the benefit of the doubt goes to the attacking team” were never formally codified, they helped contribute to the game’s rapid flow. VAR has eradicated that at a stroke.
The spontaneity of a goal being scored or a penalty being awarded has largely been lost, celebrations tempered by the now-familiar sight of the referee trotting to the sideline to examine the incident for himself or herself, often for minutes at a time. On the opening weekend, Manchester City had a goal ruled out against West Ham on the basis of video analysis, which concluded – after an interminable cycle of frame-by-frame replays and little coloured lines drawn perpendicularly from the defender’s armpit to the ground – that City’s Raheem Sterling had been offside by a millimetre.
Let’s take a moment to consider the absurdity of this scenario. A rule initially invented to prevent attackers from goal-hanging – standing next to the goal waiting for the ball to come to them – has morphed into a protracted pursuit of objective perfection, one in which entire games and careers and livelihoods now hang on the most infinitesimal of fractions. Or as former referee Keith Hackett wrote in the Telegraph: “VAR was designed to eliminate major, obvious errors. My fear is that we are going down a path where definitive judgements are being made without conclusive evidence.”
This is the tyranny of margins, and in case you’re beginning to wonder what all this has to do with Brexit, then consider the intellectual circuitry that allows a 52-48 referendum to be interpreted as an unequivocal, unassailable mandate. VAR and Brexit spring from the same popular impulse: an abhorrence of nuance, a growing intolerance to the very concept of ambiguity, a demand for total certainty, even when its pursuit becomes self-defeating, even when no such certainty exists.
And as with Brexit, the debate over VAR has come to subsume everything else around it: one long circular shouting match in which arguments calcify and positions entrench, defined ultimately not by sporting ethics or by judicial principle but by self-interest.
The Evening Standard put forward a more pro-VAR article, using the ‘be careful what you wish for” premise.
Frankly, its all your own fault. Moaners, whingers, and complainers. Outraged managers, fuming fans, babbling phone-in callers. Protesting pundits, dissenting players and incensed commentators.
VAR, which will surely cause another round of controversy this weekend, is the inevitable product of all the years of football’s ceaseless persecution and under-mining of referees.
And of its flagrant, deliberate and self-seeking disrespect for the rules, or rather the Laws as too few people call them correctly.
You got what so many of you demanded so loudly and so often in all those seething post-match interviews, in all those TV debates, in all those late night rants on the radio.
And now you’ve got it, you don’t like it. So you’re all demanding inconsistency instead. As in interpretation. Fluctuation. Fudging. A little bending of the rules. So-called “common sense.”
As a response to the authorities’ attempts to iron out doubt and get as much right as possible, much of football’s reaction to the input of the new technology has been pure Alice-in-Wonderland stuff.
Spoilt, contradictory, contrary and paradoxical.
The cameras can now show whether a player is off-side by a matter of millimetres.
They can detect a handball, based on a new, ultra-clarified standard which, rightly or not, has been set to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. Or whether an obvious goal-scoring opportunity was denied by a foul.
They can pick up who shoved, tripped or strangulated who in the box after the event. Who tugged who’s shirt. Who encroached at a penalty. Which ‘keeper jumped off their line at a spot-kick. Even whether the referee got something wrong.
You may not agree with the way the rules has been set – in particular the new, unyielding interpretation of handball. This needs debating soon.
Straight out of the traps, too, the debate about VAR and offside is shifted so that there is a fresh argument about whether it always correctly detects “point of contact” – i.e precisely when the ball was passed to the offside player.
Whatever the case, it improves consistency.
The ability to swear that black-is-white and vice-versa has long been a useful tool in such an emotional and partisan sport. Many fans are as one-eyed as many managers. They don’t want fairness. They want to win at all costs. And it is understandable.
Just as it is understandable that VAR has created so much trouble in its early days.
But once again, it needs pointing out that it is an attempt to reduce mistakes and to make it more plain why decisions have been taken, or subsequently changed.
“the idea is to introduce more consistency”
This was the watch-word used by managers and phone-in “experts” to give an air of faux responsibility to their endless complaining about referees and their work.
The flip-side has always been that old one about decisions “evening themselves out over the course of the season.”
Select Option A if you feel hard-done-by. Or have lost.
Choose Option B if you’ve got away with one.
But the general trend in the game and among fans remains the same; complain, complain, complain.
We should have just let referees get on with running matches as best as they could and as fairly as they hoped to – mistakes and all.
It would have been the human thing to do. And football, ultimately, is one of life’s greatest expressions of humanity. Good and bad.
As an onlooker assembling this debate and putting it out there, no, I’m not satisfied with VAR. But then I’m more the traditionalist, purist football fan, not appreciating alterations to our game. I can see two things myself. One, VAR creates more questions than answers and two, it’s leaving refs far more open to ridicule than when they were when it was just them in charge. They’re caught in the crossfire of this technological overlord.
I’m fairly certain that the video assistant referee will be with us now indeterminately but we can vote whether we are for or against in polls just like here.