Another week, another controversy about how VAR is the beginning of the end of football.
Just weeks ago, the Premier League rejected introducing Video Assistant Referee next season, choosing instead to continue trials in cup competitions. Technology was obviously feeling hurt by the decision and decided to show us what we are missing, by causing absolute chaos throughout Europe.
VAR was introduced to help referees, a safety net for officials to fall back on should they be in any doubt over a decision. They can review the incident for themselves, through a pitch side TV on the end of an arm nicked from a dentist’s chair, or by calling on their ex-referee mates in a van, who recommend what decision to make.
Brilliant. Finally, football is lowering its stubborn walls and taking inspiration from other sports. The same concept has been used successfully in rugby and tennis for years, so the transition to football should be seamless. Right?
Wrong. Oh so wrong.
The implementation has been nothing short of a mess. In a Bundesliga match between Mainz and Freiburg on April 16, just three days after the Premier League rejects VAR, the referee uses the technology to award a penalty DURING half-time, after players were allowed the leave the pitch. Confusion descends. Pandemonium ensues. Toilet rolls thrown onto the pitch.
Arguably, the sheer comedy of it makes for brilliant entertainment for all the wrong reasons. There are many arguments against the logistics of VAR and how exactly it will work. How will it be introduced at grass roots levels? How reliable is another set of eyes?
All fair points, but, more worryingly, is that the nature of the technology reduces the spectacle.
What can’t be argued, no matter how hard some people try, is that the intentions behind VAR are good and pure. Making the game fairer by making the right decisions seems a core part of the game and a noble goal to work towards. However, you can’t better the very purpose of the game without changing the fundamentals of it, and that is where the purists take issue.
The reason why ‘soccer’ is universally loved whilst American football struggles to leave its own country, is that our version is far more free-flowing and, arguably, more immersive. 45 minutes of pure, ad-free action where the only brief stoppages are because of a goal or an event in the match itself.
This is the format we know and love until suddenly, we have stoppages which can take up to three or four minutes just for the referee to make a decision?
The peak of football is celebrating a goal, whether watching on TV or in amongst thousands of like-minded fans. Raw emotion is unleashed, tears flow from the faces of hardened middle-aged men who probably kept a straight face at their child’s birth, and for a brief moment, it’s acceptable to absolutely lose it.
Now, there is a very real danger of losing that moment which bonds fans together. We have seen goals delayed as recent as this year’s FA Cup, as Tottenham were denied a goal and had a penalty overturned in their fifth-round game against Rochdale. As the ref trots over to the touch-line, the scorer and crowds of thousands stand, arms in air or hands on hips, as we wait for the mates in the van to give the go ahead.
By then, the moment is lost. Even if the goal stands the emotion dissipates in that three-minute limbo. We could end up seeing that moment disappearing completely, as players instinctively look to the referee to award the goal instead of sprinting towards the faithful.
After the saga that was the FIFA corruption scandal, it was vital that football was put in safe hands, people who could steer the ship. If VAR isn’t streamlined, the ship which has just started to steady itself, could drift over the Atlantic, and we could see the ‘Americanisation’ of our global sport. Three minute breaks in play is an irresistible thought for companies to sink their advertising teeth into.
The combination of technology and football seems an inevitable path. But, for it to stand any chance in convincing the purists, it first has to find a way of adapting itself into the flow of the game so that the lasting effect is integration, not disruption.