Football With VAR is a Different Sport – and Not the One You Love

Football With VAR is a Different Sport – and Not the One You Love
January 11, 2021 Chris Rowland


By Mark Cohen.

It would appear that ‘subjectivity’, the human element of officiating as it were, was the one huge bugbear in the sport that technology was supposed to fix for all of us.

We hated it when the ref was wrong, and we hated it when the linesman cost us points. We hated it when Old Trafford would roar the ref into submission, just as we’d love it when the Kop would do the same at ours.

By removing the subjectivity, we reasoned that the game would be fairer, more transparent, allowing the actual skills of football to rise to the fore, with everything else in the background relegated into the insignificance it deserves.

The ref would be merely a confirmation of certainty, the crowd a removed observer, only acting upon its environment AFTER the fact…

What a dream.

It’s a pity then, that we’ve all come to see that the fact: the game, the crowd and the refs, are much the same as ‘space and time’, in that they are actually all one thing.

The game is not simply eleven blokes (or blokettes) darting round the field kicking a football, it is a deeply complex amalgam of ‘play, observe and feedback from crowd, and officiate’, with all these elements actually working together to create this beloved live thing we call football.

Some of my greatest memories in football are those moments of catastrophe in a penalty box, it’s all happening, someone dives in, there’s an enormous crescendo from the crowd and the ref in the middle, himself inexorably linked to the whole thing, bays to the scene before him and points the spot resulting in a another roar of confirmation from the crowd…pure exhilaration.

What about all those moments (now lost in antiquity), where a through ball is played, the attackers hit the line at speed and, and and…. the flag stays down!!! The commentators scream with delight as the forward bears on goal, the crowd are whipped into a fervour and, whether in a world of ‘actual reality’ the player is off sides or not, the moment itself it’s true.

The ball hits the back of the net and that’s that, you can celebrate if it’s your team, you can clench your fists and scream at the ref if it’s not, but thank God the moment was pure as that link between ‘play, observe and feedback from crowd, and officiate’ was unbroken and thus our footballing universe complete.

We FELT something at an emotional level, and that feeling, more than accuracy, more than transparency, is what brings people back to 90 minutes after 90 minutes thousands of times in their lifetime.

My wife said to me the other day, as I tuned in to watch the Villa-Liverpool game, that she couldn’t understand why I keep watching as every game is the same.

I didn’t scold the poor girl, or laugh in her face, as I understood something she didn’t – that football is an unparalleled soap opera, lasting one’s entire life, it’s not just the 90 minutes, it’s the whole thing, the drama of the game, the crowd and the ref all fusing together and creating one unending feedback loop after another, forever.

What we’ve lost chasing this reffing accuracy is far, far greater than what we’ve gained.

We’ve lost two parts of the space-time continuum, the crowd and the ref, who are now halted from the immediacy of emotion and judgement that football needs to be the most amazing experience in sport, the one capable of producing immediate, unfiltered raw feedback.

People need to understand this, and they need to absorb its message deep into their minds: football, the one you love, is a fusion of a game, a crowd and a ref.

Football with VAR is a different sport – it’s nothing like the one you know, and it’s not the game you love.

Without the catharsis and emotional release that the immediacy of football, with its low scoring, and thus highly important key moments in games, brings, the feeling of the sport is lost.

It’s strange then to think that it’s not VAR itself that actually fucks all this up.

It’s the loss of immediacy that’s the culprit.

When VAR first reared its fun-sapping head, as a little thing we call goal line technology, it did so in such an unobtrusive and accurate way, so as TO ACTUALLY MAKE THE FUCKIN’ GAME BETTER.

Wow, what a thought hey – change things only if they make the sport (the one we actually love, with a game, a crowd and a ref) better. Wowee.

It achieved this by doing two things and only two things:

It was accurate. And it was immediate.

Running at 500 frames a second, in real time, it was and is capable of offering an experience as exciting as the one that preceded it, but with more accuracy and fairness.

In the past, you’d wait that agonising half a second as the ref decided if it crossed the line, and as he pointed to the centre circle, you knew boy, you knew you could jump up and celebrate.

Now, the same! You wait half a second and then the 500 frame a second camera lets the ref know and he points to the centre circle and you pump your fists, hug your loved ones and celebrate!!!

Goal line technology added more fairness to the sport, in real time, and caused almost zero controversy. So it’s not like removing subjectivity was the problem, the problem lay clearly in something else that we’d soon see.

In the next round of additions, the two crucial elements of successful goal-line technology was removed:

Accuracy, and you betcha, immediacy.

Accuracy because, when Michael Oliver admits that when they do their weekly zoom calls, the reviewed decisions are often split fifty fifty anyway, we realise that reffing contact in sports is an entirely subjective thing, and we HAVE to place our trust in an official to make the call, for better or worse.

So there is no 100% right or wrong, there is no accuracy.

Now, factor in that it often takes minutes to review each decision, and you can quickly see how the game you love is being decimated; you lose your emotional release, and yet you DON’T gain any accuracy or loss of subjectivity haha!! What a fuckin’ disaster!!!

Ditto off-sides, where VAR’s mostly unfortunate entree has been peddled as a highly successful addition to the sport.

It’s been almost entirely awful. Slowing down the game, again removing people’s emotional high from a goal, whilst actually being an extremely subjective piece of garbage where middle aged men spend minutes drawing lines on people at their subjective whim, all the whole using blurred screens running at a measly 24 frames a second and calling it accurate.

Again, as Paul (Tomkins) has pointed out in probably 100,000 words this year… no gain in accuracy, no loss of subjectivity, only more obfuscating and time wasting officiating, removing fans ever more from their required emotional release.

It’s not that VAR is a problem, it is that the application of VAR presently is fucking awful and not up to the speed of the sport.

It has been absolutely proven that it can work -see goal line tech as a great example – but that it can only be implemented when two core principles are met: Accuracy, and Immediacy.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but for a start, the term clear and obvious should be like the ten fuckin’ commandments here: review things if you must. But review them immediately in ten seconds or less. If it’s clear and obvious you will spot it in ten seconds, otherwise dude, IT’S NOT CLEAR AND OBVIOUS.

In fact the television ref should be watching five seconds delayed, with the ref in his ear telling him something’s happened so he can watch carefully in his own real time.

For offsides the same thing applies – let the linesman get back to calling them, make a big margin for error like fifteen cm or something and only review for clear and obvious errors, again immediately, and again making a decision virtually in real time if you must.

In time, the offsides technology can advance, with some sort of sensor on the person allowing for the type of 500 frames a second accuracy we have in goal-line tech and everybody can enjoy the match in real time like they are meant to – if it’s offsides a buzzer will go off and game can stop immediately, if not, it’s play on and none of the excitement is lost.

Accuracy and immediacy. This is like robocops core directives – this is the only thing that matters. If you can’t get it, don’t use technology as it simply ruins the game we love.

I mean, for God’s sake, it’s not that hard is it?