The use of Video Assistant Referees, or VAR, has entrenched itself, somewhat tediously, as one of football’s major talking points in recent years. The tedium shows no signs of abating soon: VAR’s stumbling debut in the English game has only added fuel to the dispute’s fire, with supporters insisting the early issues are merely teething problems, whereas detractors argue that its troublesome introduction betrays something more fundamentally flawed about the system.
If you only listened to VAR’s most vociferous backers, you’d be forgiven for thinking those still unconvinced of its ability to usher in a smooth new digital age of error-free-but-still-beautiful football are simply luddites, fearful of change and pining for the mythologised ‘good old days’ of football.
VAR’s apostles wonder what possible reason there is to enshrine imprecision in football when all other sports embrace technology and use it effectively. This is a superficially enticing position; after all, who actually wants more bad refereeing decisions? Those weary of VAR have to defend a more nuanced view, and nuance often falls on deaf ears in the world of football.
Indeed, as with most things in life, the truth is more complicated. Extra assistance will undoubtedly lead to more correct refereeing decisions, but VAR enthusiasts fail to appreciate that improved accuracy inevitably comes with a cost, and that ultimately the decision to implement VAR rests on a judgment of the trade-off between entertainment and absolute fairness.
Those desperate for VAR misjudge both the scope of its benefits and the extent of its costs.
Football’s greatest moments consist in collective release after built up tension – the sight of a rippling net and a star striker wheeling away in celebration, and the subsequent delirious celebration, is the pinnacle of the sport. VAR could, in its gratuitous pursuit of factual purity, rob the game of its greatest moment.
Think of Sergio Agüero’s goal that won the league for Manchester City in 2012. This was football at its best: a visceral, rapturous moment of pure footballing drama. VAR would have sucked the joy out of this moment.
In fact, this has been the case in a handful of the games in the trial period so far: celebrations turning from elation to a confused murmur as the crowd wait for the goal to be confirmed. It is something we should worry about because what’s at stake is the soul of the sport; if football’s great moments of release are ruined by pedantry, the sport will be poorer.
Besides, VAR won’t solve the ‘problem’ of officiating error in football.The clamouring for VAR after every controversial decision overlooks something important about the official’s job in football: that most of the decisions are interpretative, in a way that decisions in other sports are not. VAR will not be the silver bullet that football fans obsessed with the ‘declining standard of refereeing in this country’ desire.
Mike Riley has said that officials aim for VAR to lead to a two per cent reduction in referee mistakes and, as such, many of the decisions that induce outrage in football fans will not change. This is why pointing to the effective use of technology in sports like tennis and cricket won’t do: a tennis serve is either in or out, and the batsman either nicked it or didn’t.
Moreover, tennis and cricket have natural breaks in play which facilitate the smooth use of technology. Technology can solve problems and gripes in those sports in a way it cannot in football.
VAR will have a minimal effect on officiating decisions, only reversing the occasional howler. Yet it will loom large over football, disrupting the flow and pace of the game, leading to uncertainty and a dampened atmosphere in football’s own church.
If the pursuit of absolute fairness means we lose something more important along the way, we should embrace football’s jeopardy – after all, it is only a game.
Image Courtesy of Corey-Adam Crowley