The opening weekend of the Premier League season was in some ways bittersweet—the sweetness provided by the return of the best league in the world, the bitterness from the sad end of England’s noble resistance to the scourge of VAR. To anyone expecting to witness the inherently corrosive effects of video replay play out in its English debut, this weekend unfortunately did not disappoint.
The first visible instance of VAR’s corrupting influence came about midway through Saturday’s West Ham-Manchester City match. In the 53rd minute, City slipped through the Hammers’ defense with a gorgeously flowing move that culminated in an uncontested Gabriel Jesus tap-in. In a match full of balletic interplay, Jesus’s goal was maybe the most breathtaking passage of them all:
But right around the moment when you finally remembered to pick your jaw up off the floor, you would’ve noticed that the game still hadn’t restarted, because the play was under review. Then, once the TV director stopped showing replays of the goal and instead put this still image on screen for 33 seconds—
—you were at last informed that the none of what you’d just seen actually mattered because the video assistant deemed Raheem Sterling’s shoulder to have been a centimeter or two beyond the last defender’s shoulder, making him offside and annulling the goal.
VAR’s other big intrusion came the following day, during Sunday’s match between Leicester and Wolves. From a corner kick, Wolves midfielder Leander Dendoncker reacted first to a loose ball and volleyed it into the net. Play wouldn’t resume for another two minutes, though, during which time VAR was able to detect the ball coming off teammate Willy Boly’s arm during the initial cross, nullifying the goal:
As is often the case, the manager had the smartest take. This time it was Wolves boss Nuno Espírito Santo, who pointed out how the introduction of VAR necessarily cheapens the emotional impact of goals:
Man City coach Pep Guardiola said something similar after his match, saying of VAR’s effect, “Maybe the intensity and passion will leave. It is going to change the dynamic — not just for the team but also for the spectators.” Guardiola would know something about that. Back in April, his City team was sent into raptures after Sterling scored the club’s most important goal in European competition history, only to see VAR rob them of the goal and, more importantly, the feeling it engendered.
As a big-picture matter, Nuno and Guardiola (and Mauricio Pochettino before them) are right; the biggest risk posed by VAR’s implementation is the steady erosion of soccer’s visceral feel. But even in on a less apocalyptic level, it’s clear that VAR is bad and insidious.
What’s most striking about the two goal nullifications above is how uncontroversial the calls were in live time. Nobody seemed to believe the goals were wrong. Neither Sterling, Jesus, or Dendoncker reacted to the goals with the sheepishness of someone who knows they’d gotten away with something. Neither West Ham’s or Leicester’s defenders turned to remonstrate with the referees for failing to flag the offside/handball.
Instead, we had two completely unobjectionable moments, one of which exemplified the sport’s highest aesthetic possibilities, that were ruled illegal not because anyone playing or watching thought something had gone wrong, but rather because big-time soccer has decreed that the game can no longer be “fairly” arbitrated without hyper-analyzing it with inhuman exactitude.
In a post-VAR world, watching replays of goals after they have been scored—or rather potentially scored—transforms from an act of appreciation into one of inspection. The slow motion replay, once the tool that allowed us to luxuriate in every little detail of the beautiful game’s most beautiful moments, has turned us all into cops checking every run for a possible offside, every cross for a potential grazing of the ball by an errant elbow, ignoring the spectacle to hunt for infractions. It’s going to a concert and rather than squeezing up to the front row to enjoy the show, standing by the speakers with a decibel meter ready to report the venue and get the show shut down if the noise breaches the legal threshold.
It’s not even that VAR was wrong in its determinations. The ball definitely hit Boly’s arm before Dendoncker kicked it, and maybe Sterling really was beyond West Ham’s defense. (Though the latter is less clear, because there is no way to determine whether the video assistant chose the precisely correct frame when David Silva’s foot first touched the ball to freeze and draw those lines.) But soccer is about kicking in volleys and making well-timed runs in behind to play in a teammate for a tap-in, not molecular analysis of a single video frame to answer objections no human involved in or watching the play even raised.
There are already enough cops in the world who love searching for small, irrelevant infringements to “prove” why good things are actually bad. We don’t need the great game of soccer enlisting every one of its fans into those miserable ranks.