Yesterday’s Tottenham-Rochdale match had all the ingredients for great game. It had stakes, as an F.A. Cup knockout match; it had narrative, since it pit a Goliath of a club against a lower league David; it had drama, after it went into halftime tied at one goal apiece as Rochdale fought valiantly to keep their dream run alive; and it had atmosphere, as pretty layers of snow blanketed the booming crowd in England’s grandest soccer venue. Unfortunately, all of that was ruined by the scourge of video replay.
Coming out of the dressing room after what should’ve been an exciting first half of play that instead was marred by seemingly interminable delays and puzzling decisions of the Video Assistant Referee process, Spurs took the pitch in the second half and blew the doors off Rochdale, winning by a score of 6-1. The match satisfied no one, however, as BT Sport’s commentary team detailed in their postgame assault on VAR:
The commentary team’s analysis was exactly correct, and honed in on the technical defects of VAR. As we’ve noted here before, video replay in soccer is fundamentally flawed for many of the reasons on display yesterday. The delays (one of the commentators above mentions that gameplay was stopped for about eight minutes just in the first half while the head ref consulted the replay official through his earpiece) in a sport defined in large part by its fluidity are awful. The video-assisted reviews result in decisions that are no more satisfying or even correct than the initial calls, as shown by the non-foul that ruled out what was first deemed a valid Érik Lamela goal. Every time a player scores a goal, your first reaction isn’t elation or despair, depending on your rooting interest, as instead that immediate emotional response is suffocated as you sit and wait for the inevitable review of the play, watching slowed down replays not to enjoy the majesty of the one thing everyone came to the game to see—a goal—but rather to scrutinize the play’s component parts looking for any possible minute infraction that may result in the ref calling the goal off. In a very real sense, video replay threatens to ruin many of the key aspects that make soccer the great sport it is.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino also drilled down on some of these same point in his postgame remarks in a press conference that almost completely ignored the tense and fun first half and Spurs’ impressively dominant second half performance:
Let’s focus on a couple of Pochettino’s most trenchant critiques. Here’s how he responded to a question asking him what he thinks of VAR, from a transcript of the presser:
My feeling is difficult, ok I need to explain. I am so happy because the job is done and we’re in the quarter-final. That was our objective, but the first half was a little bit embarrassing for everyone. I think it’s difficult to keep focus on playing football. I am not sure that that system is going to help. I love the football as football was born. That is why we love the game that we know.
I think football, we are talking about emotion, the context of emotion. If we are going to kill the emotion then the fans, the people who love football, I don’t think are so happy about what they saw today.
And whether he thinks VAR is ready to be implemented (presumably in Premier League play, as it is already a part of F.A. Cup and League Cup play) next season:
I think you, the fans and myself, we are all agreed, watching today’s game, I think maybe it’s so early for next season because we need to respect the fans. 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.
If the BT Sport guys concentrated more on video replay’s technical flaws, Pochettino targeted the other, even more important risk replay poses to the game’s visceral thrill. Even when replay upholds a goal, the fact that you can’t fully rejoice in it until the referee confirms that the goal will stand means every goal will to some degree be sapped of the very thing that makes them so good. The entire point of the sport, the whole reason to love it, is the emotional journey it takes you on as you wait patiently after a team collects the ball for them to move it forward, then watch with increasing hope and anxiety as the players progressively kick the ball closer and closer to the penalty box, the delightful pressure inching higher and higher until finally someone shoots at the goal and steers the ball past the keeper and all at once the tension gloriously snaps in an explosion of joy and awe and wonder. Adding a temporal and epistemological layer between the ball hitting the net and the emotions that follow it threatens everything. As Pochettino put it, “if I cannot shout to celebrate the goal because you have to wait two minutes you cannot express yourself.”
The question then becomes what to do next. One argument is that these are early days in VAR, and while it kind of sucks right now, replay will be a boon to the game in the long run as referees steadily become more adept at learning when and how to use it. A more pessimistic solution would be to abolish VAR entirely, seeing how replay is now just an accepted part of American sports despite the ways in which it continues to degrade the experience of watching games. The latter approach seems to me the smarter play, since there’s no reason to fiddle with the sport’s key appeal in a misguided search for the illusion of refereeing certainty.
A journalist asked Pochettino later in his postgame presser whether he thought video replay should be axed. He replied that it’s something he’s interested in discussing, but doesn’t feel he has the English vocabulary to fully convey his thoughts on the matter. He did get one line in about the topic, though, saying “Rather than talking about football we are talking about a machine. That is my worry.” Pochettino’s concerns should worry everyone who cares about the sport, and hopefully by voicing them he and people like him can convince the powers that be to cut their losses with video replay while there’s still something worthy of protecting.