Yesterday, millions around the world watched Raheem Sterling cap one of the wildest matches they will ever see with a stunning last-gasp winning goal, only to be told a minute or so later that it never happened.
Sterling’s once-in-a-lifetime goal sent the home Manchester City fans in attendance into a state of pure, roaring ecstasy. Sterling could hardly contain himself, sprinting around and screaming and flailing his arms around in no discernible pattern before finally mustering enough composure to pull off a knee slide and a great big fist pump in front of the euphoric crowd. Pep Guardiola, no doubt the one man on the pitch with the most to lose from the match’s outcome, saw Sterling’s shot go in and went pogoing down the sideline with joyous abandon, as if a weight so enormous had been lifted from him that he now believed he could fly. Untold millions witnessed something truly spectacular with their very own eyes, saw and felt the entire spectrum of possible emotions in light of what they’d seen, and then a ruinously stupid system of video replay retroactively nullified the act, rendering everything the goal meant and felt like meaningless.
The VAR decision, that Agüero was offside when he started the move that culminated in Sterling’s would-be winner and so the play should’ve been flagged before it began, was correct. But that it is even possible for the video assistant to correct the call on the field after it had happened is a much bigger and more dangerous problem than any blown call could ever be.
Aaron Gordon, a Jalopnik colleague, put it well after the match:
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, speaking after a Spurs win in the F.A. Cup that was marred by VAR last season, was exactly right as well when he commented on the risks replay poses:
I think the fans who watch football are not so happy about this. Maybe it’s for you the decision and I think you are going to kill that emotion that makes you feel happy and that is why you paid for the ticket and came to the game today when the conditions are so bad.
Ok maybe you are going to say I’ll watch the game through the TV and stay at home, because if I cannot shout to celebrate the goal because you have to wait two minutes you cannot express yourself. But that is my opinion and I don’t want the people going to attack me because they are going to defend it. I am for the new technology but be careful when you are going to change the game that we know very well. We are going to change and kill the emotion.
VAR is an existential risk to soccer in the way that blown realtime calls are not. Soccer has existed for over a century and a half without missed calls spelling the game’s doom. Referees blow calls all the time—big ones and small ones, close ones and obvious ones, minor ones and colossally important ones—and yet the sport endures. It sucks, it’s unfair, it ideally would never happen, but it does and everything has been fine.
VAR is different. VAR threatens to alter the fundamental calculus of the sport and how we relate to it in irreparable ways. I can already feel it happening in my own mind. When watching my team, Barcelona, in La Liga, where video replay is now used, I find that the emotions associated with each goal I watch are a little slower coming.
Ivan Rakitić tackles the ball away from an opponent, hits it over to Messi, Messi finds a streaking Ousmane Dembélé with an inch-perfect through ball, Dembélé slams the ball past the keeper, and I fight down the surge of joy in my chest as my mind redirects to whether Rakitić’s tackle could be ruled a foul on review or if Dembélé’s shoulder might be judged fractionally offside. After the video cameras give the moment their blessing and the goal is upheld, I find that the emotion that does come isn’t quite as intense as in the past. I pump my fist, less out of an involuntary expression of happiness and almost more out of duty, me trying to remind my heart to get excited about the thing I saw but wasn’t allowed to feel or believe yet.
It’s a familiar feeling to any NFL fan. The quarterback drops back, arcs the ball far into the air, the receiver makes a diving catch at the back of the endzone, and rather than react viscerally you first scan the broadcast chyron for a yellow flag indicator, then think of all the ways the cameras and the NFL’s incomprehensible rule book might conspire to negate the play. The most dazzling feats are almost by definition the most suspicious. Replay’s pernicious influence turns a game of immediate, emotional reactions to live athletic greatness into a delayed, intellectual exercise in post hoc lawyerly adjudication. Obsession over the parts renders the whole meaningless. It has only and will only get worse in football, and it will be the same in soccer.
Manchester City didn’t “deserve” to beat Tottenham yesterday, and had Raheem Sterling’s goal stood, it would’ve been an injustice. But it would’ve an injustice only to Tottenham. Maybe you want to live in a world where leagues leverage replay technology as often as possible to prevent such injustices from happening, but does that leave you with a sport worth watching? Think about why you got into sports in the first place. Was it because nothing thrills you as much as seeing a proper outcome reached via carefully considered video-assisted officiating, or was it because you saw an incredible athlete do something amazing that made you lose your mind?
VAR, by overruling a goal that the refs on the pitch allowed and in doing so taking all Sterling’s and his teammates’ and Guardiola’s and City fans’ and neutrals’ and even Tottenham players’ and supporters’ emotional reaction to a thing they had seen and making it null, committed an injustice to the entire sport and everyone who cares about it. That is an injustice that can never be remedied.