Virtual assistance is ruining the modern game. Do we need to scrap it?
I believe there is a consensus that football has lost something; that football itself might be lost. Every weekend, there are Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) led decisions that twist people up, arguments about consistency, flow and, most importantly, an essential forensic charmlessness that has come into the game. Last summer saw Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder as one of the first to express his sheer bemusement with the ordeal, stating that he didn’t know “whether to laugh or cry” over the unconventional quirks of VAR. By autumn of 2020, it had become clear which way most Premier League managers were leaning on the matter. A few managers made their feelings quite clear: Crystal Palace’s Roy Hodgson claimed that “VAR is a nonsense ruining the game”, whereas Fulham’s Scott Parker simply stated the decisions are “criminal…a mess”. Yes, there are always going to be calls going the way of “LiVARpool” and Manchester United, who have a tendency to receive constant penalties, yet VAR is so much more than a satirical farce. The inconsistent decisions week in and week out can, and will, have severely damaging effects on teams down the lower end of the table. Inconsistency and incompetency on behalf of this system, which is supposed to better the game, will eventually define a team’s survival hopes or see a club miss out on an invaluable European spot.
It’s concerning to think that football’s decision to embrace VAR is, to put it simply, the worst thing to happen to the game in its recent history. It’s difficult to think of an alternative answer going back decades, which says so much about the way football has subtly evolved its laws to remain the world’s most popular sport. Obviously, there are a variety of serious off-field problems with the sport: corruption, racial discrimination, and violence to name a few. More or less any glaring aspect of society is in some part reflected in football. Yet when examining the sport itself – 90 mins of football, 22 players battling on a pitch, it’s quite difficult to identify a comparable misstep. It should be noted that the percentage of correct decisions have actually risen, but this was never the issue. Does this justify the chaos and disruption to the sport that relies so greatly on rhythm and flow? Surely this question can be met with a resounding no.
The most controversial aspects of the video assistance concern offside decisions, which simply encapsulates how disastrous VAR has proven to be. This should be an element of the game where decisions are binary. Given assistant referees are tasked with looking in two places at once for offside then surely this should be the area in which VAR is invaluable? Instead, it’s become a laughable and major sticking point. To look at the technicalities is a bore-fest, but most can agree that it’s impossible that VAR is getting marginal offside decisions correct every time. In essence, it’s a “best guess”. Of course, there is a completely reasonable argument that it’s worthwhile using technology to provide the best evidence it can but when combined with the minute nature of some decisions, this becomes severely problematic. The process remains heavily dependent on human input: the video assistant, a supposedly qualified referee, chooses relevant points for offside lines and the technology sorts out the angles and lines. As most know, the incessant process on television is simply a derisory experience that could be pulled from a satirical comedy. It’s dreadful to watch on television and even more daunting when watching on the grounds.
Amongst this mockery, a surprising aspect is how many goals have been completely ruled offside, when no human eye would have even remotely suspected it being offside. Minimal margins in the build-up play to goals are watched with ridiculous intimacy and has defined the most bizarre refereeing decisions as of late. There will always be very fine margins however you may calculate an offside; regardless of any change, VAR will continually be adjudicating by a matter of millimetres. All this seems to completely defeat the purpose of using technology when it’s an incompetent referee making the final decisions. Away from elongated breaks in play, handball controversies and offside inaccuracies, the greatest drawback is the increasingly subdued goal celebrations. Players almost feel reluctant to embrace the goal and celebrate due to the desperate hope that their goal would not be ruled out by VAR. This is the first time the game has been completely muted, before VAR everyone would glance over to the linesman to quickly check for offside, but these days by the time VAR are done scrutinising and faffing around you can easily have made a cup of tea. It’s difficult to ignore the feeling that top-level English football, once the hallmark of the sport, has lost something major - its special edge. No other sport sees goals or points celebrated so ardently as in football, simply due to goals being so rare and thus so valuable. The sheer jubilation of witnessing a live goal is a truly magnificent thing.
Going to football matches you expect to watch immense technical quality, physical endurance and embrace the mesmerising atmosphere, yet there still remains the intense ecstasy of wildly celebrating in a crowd of fans tumbling and laughing all over the place; more commonly known as “limbs AOTS” (all over the shop). With all the modern-day restrictions and inconveniences of Premier League football now fans are unable to celebrate goals properly and many are seen to only celebrate when the goal is confirmed. It really is a pathetic anti-climax. By the time we are back in the terraces, let’s hope the emotion that football generates and the elation of a win or scrap for an important point is far too commanding for a tedious delay to make a serious dent in the day’s proceedings. Amongst this vacillation and wavering decision making, when the time comes there is little doubt in my mind that the millions of fans will continue to line the streets, queue at turnstiles and bellow tunes at the top of their voices. Yet through gritted teeth and behind constant tuts, the great game will be watched. VAR should be kept but rules need to be enforced correctly and consistently. Whether this means a reconsideration of officials or even a revision of the rules something needs to change. The end to a tumultuous Premier League season is near, yet we will continue to watch on with a sour taste in our mouth.
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