English football is about to enter a new era of technology.
How crucial VAR is will depend on whether you believe football is a honest competitive sport or pure entertainment.
The impression I get is that a lot of fans view it as the latter. The opposition to VAR’s introduction centres around the interruptions it can cause in the game and its potential impact on our emotional response to events.
Some are terrified of a late minute goal being scored yet not being able to experience the euphoria or crippling disappointment because the goal is being reviewed.
They fear that players will cease celebrating because there’s a chance their goal will not stand.
These are valid points, but they do overlook that the wait for a decision can contribute to the drama as well.
The problem is that football’s entertainment factor is dependent on the randomness produced by honest competition.
Unlike actual sports entertainment, football results are not pre-determined. Players are not actors on a stage putting together a performance to meet an agreed upon outcome.
For the managers and the players, entertainment is not a factor. They need to achieve results or their livelihoods are at stake.
Football is one of the few industries where luck has as much say as skill. Managers have lost their jobs because of refereeing mistakes or simple bad luck during a game. Players’ careers have been defined by lucky or unlucky moments.
There are some things that can’t be controlled, like the bounce of the ball. But we can influence refereeing decisions to ensure that some fairness is restored to the game
The argument then becomes: to what extent can we ensure there’s fairness in the game?
Referees are humans and will make mistakes. They are required to make difficult decisions in a short amount of time based on little information.
In this sense, they are no different to the players, who also make mistakes in the heat of the moment.
Human error is difficult for people to accept because, short of replacing everyone with robots, there’s no cure for it. Things just happen.
We have to base our expectations around what humans are realistically capable of.
VAR will reveal decisions that the referee missed and chances are that referee will be panned for missing them.
But from his perspective, he might have had no way of spotting them.
This is seen a lot in cricket with their use of the Decision Review System (DRS).
DRS was introduced to help umpires and players eradicate “howlers” – that is, decisions so bad it would be completely unjust for them to decide games.
As the players got to grips with it, though, they started to use it for every decision possible.
DRS now overturns decisions based on the slimmest of margins. LBWs have been overturned due to the ball missing the stumps by millimetres, even when the naked eye suggested it was hitting. Catches have been given based on feather touches that only infrared and sound technology could have picked up.
Technically, these are all “out”, and the umpire got it wrong. Yet, sometimes it can take 10-15 minutes for a decision to be reached. They might arrive to the right conclusion, but what they’re doing in 10 minutes the umpire has to do in 10 seconds.
How much did the umpire do wrong, really?
The issue we have in football is that we expect referees to see everything and always arrive to the right conclusion.
It’s not until we slow everything down that we can see how a referee got it wrong and have sympathy for him.
But by that point, the damage has been done. Managers, players, and fans alike have abused them and blamed them for their team’s failings.
Nor does the point stick in the next game or the game after that.
It becomes an endless cycle of mistake > abuse > mistake > abuse that only encourages the PGMOL to close up ranks.
The endless hysteria gets in the way of honest, constructive discussion about how refereeing can be improved.
At the same time, we want football to entertain us.
We want the mistakes because it make a game fun to watch.
At once, we want fairness and accuracy yet we also want a free-flowing game with controversy. It’s an impossible standard to achieve.
Until we decide what it is we truly want football to be, the referees will be caught in the crossfire and remain in limbo.