If you read this site you probably already know why VAR, soccer’s misguided foray into video replay, is shit. Up to now the Premier League admirably resisted the trend of competitions shoveling VAR down everyone’s throats, in part because of some high-profile local instantiations of VAR’s shittiness. Alas, the resistance has failed, and soccer fans are about to be on a diet of all shit, all the time.
Heads of all the Premier League clubs had a meeting today during which they agreed in principle to implement VAR in the 2019-20 season. Next, the league will petition FIFA and the International Football Association Board for final permission to go ahead with the plan. Thus the EPL will join all the other big European leagues (La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 all already use it) in featuring this dumb system that attempts to fix what isn’t broken with something that, as many American sports leagues can attest, carries the very real threat of slowly deadening your sense of the joy and clarity and meaning of the games until you can hardly discern the good from the bad. With the Premier League falling in line with those other leagues, and with UEFA’s September announcement that the Champions League too will serve up VAR starting next season, practically every soccer match anyone would want to watch will come with a heaping helping of poo.
To be fair, the taste of VAR in small doses hasn’t been terrible. This is the first season of VAR’s presence in Spain, and La Liga refs tend to use it in a relatively smart way by letting the video assistants make most of the calls themselves rather than requiring the head ref to trot over to a video monitor and review every incident himself as was the case during last summer’s World Cup. This cuts down on review-related stoppages and better integrates it into the flow and pace of the game.
That of course hasn’t stemmed the controversies arising from video replay’s inherent shortcomings, nor was VAR’s capacity to correct bad calls ever the point. For those who know where to look, VAR’s fundamentally poisonous nature is already evident.
Barcelona forward Luis Suárez, in comments otherwise favorable to VAR’s use in Spain, pointed to replay’s monumental cost after a game earlier this season. “When there are doubts over [a goal] and VAR’s used, you lose your desire to celebrate,” Suárez said, per ESPN FC. “There’s no longer that adrenaline.” Suárez did go on to say that VAR can make the game “fairer,” but the marginal gains of pedantic accuracy in a sport where refereeing perfection is impossible are not worth trading even one ounce of the immediate, visceral thrill that comes from scoring and watching someone score, which is the very soul of the game itself.
So maybe Raheem Sterling won’t win Manchester City that awful penalty from last week when something similar happens next season, but the cost of that will be frame-by-frame scrutinies that will turn a fun sport into an epistemological slog that never gets around to providing a satisfactory answer, anyway. It should be pretty clear that the tradeoff isn’t worth it.