By Lucas Wilson
Picture the scene. It’s two minutes deep into stoppage time, the game is nearing its conclusion and things are balanced on a knife edge. It’s a match that really could go either way as both teams throw punches at one another to break the 2-2 deadlock that they find themselves in. In a last, desperate, roll of the dice your team’s central midfielder gently rolls it into the path of your centre forward with a pinpoint pass which splits the opposition defence in two. You hold your breath as the striker receives the ball, running determinedly towards the other team’s goalkeeper who has for so long kept his team in the game. This time, however, he fails, as your trusty number nine coolly slots the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Euphoria ensues.
Or does it?
VAR, or Video Assistant Referee to give it its full title, has struck again. You groan, as for the next five minutes you know you are going to be subjected to the same tedious milliseconds of video footage, as the officials vainly attempt to deduce whether the striker’s big toe was offside before he ran on and scored. The verdict is in: no goal. That blissful moment when you thought your team had clinched it with a last-minute winner has dissipated into thin air.
Unfortunately for football fans everywhere, this is not a rare occurrence. In fact, just this past weekend, VAR has been involved in several controversies including the awarding of a contentious penalty to Sheffield United against Liverpool, and the refusal to grant a penalty to Frank Lampard’s Chelsea side after a tussle between two centre-backs in the box, in which Manchester United’s Harry Maguire seemed to aggressively haul Cesar Azpilicueta to the ground by his neck.
Of course, this is only this last weekend, with VAR also being involved in several other questionable decisions earlier in the season, such as the granting of a last-minute penalty to Newcastle when they played Tottenham because of a “handball” by Eric Dier, and the denial of a last-gasp Jordan Henderson winner in the most recent Merseyside Derby between Everton and Liverpool as winger Sadio Mane was very harshly ruled offside. So why is the introduction of this technology, designed to ensure no obvious officiating mistakes slip through the cracks, so horribly unreliable?
The primary reason has to come down to the fact that whilst VAR itself makes use of cameras, monitors, and other technical gadgets in its operation, it is still entirely dependent upon the unique perspective of a human for it to work, and as such is affected by subjectivity. It still requires a great degree of interpretation and communication between a select few, which creates a recipe for dissent and disagreement not only between these individuals themselves but also amongst the players on the pitch, the pundits in the studio and perhaps most significantly the fans in the stands (or perhaps more aptly in terms of COVID, on the sofas). What seems offside to one person may be just onside to another, what appears to some to be a red card offence may be to others a slightly mistimed challenge. This subjectivity is, in its purest form, one of the great joys of football.
But this is not the case when this subjectivity is masked by the veneer of objectivity which VAR claims to possess.
In pre-VAR days, of course decisions went against your team, and of course at the time this was frustrating, but as a supporter you knew that on another day with another official, this situation may have played itself out differently. These days of organicity are long gone. And with it, so have the heated debates amongst friends in the pub and the raucous goal celebrations. VAR is slowly killing what it truly means to be a football fan.
This is not to say that the idea of VAR is a completely hopeless one though. On the contrary, I believe that with correct implementation it can be a resounding success. Take, for example, the recent amendments made to the handball rule which, you guessed it, had the effect of swiftly reducing the number of ludicrous handballs being given in the league. Why haven’t offsides been given the same treatment?
If they were I have no doubt that VAR, the epitome of the adage perfect in theory, flawed in execution, could be incredibly effective at detecting those blatant errors which elude officials and aggravate fans everywhere. In its current state, however, the intrusive disconnect which VAR creates between players, managers, pundits and fans alike is far too detrimental to justify its presence in the sport. Further changes need to be made to save our beautiful game.
Image: Rlwjones via Wikimedia Commons