The return of supporters to various terraces last week in the Premier League brought back some rites of soccer that we didn’t even realize how much we missed and cherished. The mocking of a shot well over or wide of the goal. The vitriol for a ref after a foul. The applause after a relatively simple header back to a keeper or a well-worked move to escape from a press. You forget about the nuances when you go without them for so long, and you tell yourself you won’t do that again because it’s all those things, those quirks, that make the game and its fandom special.
Another returning custom was a familiar song sung in every ground. You’ve probably sung this one yourself in the comfort of your living room or with a pint in hand at the pub, your third before 11 AM:
Fuck VAR. Yes, that is an understandable emotion. VAR has been around for a few seasons now, but this past one feels like the one where it truly established itself as the sports version of pushing up the glasses on the nose to “Well actually…” any occurrence of happiness and enjoyment on the field. It also saved a few goals too, but those aren’t the ones that tend to stick in the brain. I’m a fan, and I know somewhere this season Liverpool were given a goal that was originally chalked off, but it doesn’t spring to mind. I can, however, instantly recall two or three VAR reviews that fucked us over. Such is the nature of the thing.
This phenomenon has been around soccer forever. Any fan can recall a time before VAR when a goal and celebration were cut short by the late raising of an assistant’s flag or some phantom foul that the ref saw. Say to any England fan the words “Sol Campbell” and “Argentina,” or “John Terry” and “Portugal,” and watch their face turn a shade of purple that compares favorably to Violet Beauregarde. It’s just that VAR has accentuated this, and/or turned it up to 11.
The problem of VAR, and of any review system, is that feeling of, “Did it count?” No fan likes that pause on jubilation to wonder if it will actually register. The NFL has dealt with this ever since reintroducing replay to its games years ago. But then, football always has that problem of some flag you didn’t see because the broadcast crew didn’t pick it up. Or it did, but no one’s sure which side the penalty is on. These are just different branches on the same tree as VAR.
The problem of VAR isn’t that it exists, or that it’s blabbing the plot to a movie you haven’t seen. Trying to get calls right is a good thing. We’ve almost certainly reached the limit of what humans can do in that area, and turning to technology to up the accuracy is the next logical step. And just on Sunday we saw how it can work and work well. This foul on Jamie Vardy was somehow missed. But VAR caught it, got it right, and in a fairly timely fashion. It didn’t end up mattering in the long run thanks to Leicester’s predisposition for a face-plant. But had that been the difference in their game with Spurs and had that been the reason they missed out on the Champions League, it would have been criminal. VAR is worth having for just that kind of thing.
When VAR gets in trouble is almost always in the interpretation, which leads to the other problem: the length of time these reviews can take. “Clear and obvious mistake” simply is going to mean different things to different people. Take this utter travesty of a red card given to West Ham’s Fabian Balbuena a few weeks back:
That took two different people, TWO, looking at the replay and deciding that it was worthy of an ejection. First the VAR official had to think enough of it to alert the ref, Chris Kavanagh, to go look at it on a screen, and then Kavanagh had to decide he’d made a huge mistake in not sending off Balbuena in the first place. There’s no technology that can overcome this kind of stupidity. It’ll take the best students at MIT decades to fix that.
It’s the same problem for offside decisions. Once it was decided that offside was going to be digitally reviewed and to the absolute letter of the law, a mess was the only outcome. But what’s the alternative? The rulebook does not say “kind-of level with the last defender.” It does not say “level to the perception of the human eye.” It simply says “level.” Even if VAR were to eliminate grid lines and go with whatever is obvious to the naked eye on a freeze frame, different officials will interpret it differently. What looks to be a pretty obvious shoulder or head poking beyond the line to us might be foggier to someone else. We might just have to live with this until Arsene Wenger’s automatic offside system is a reality. Or scrap it, but that would put us back in the days of having clearly offside goals count or vice versa, which is what had people baying for VAR in the first place.
I’ve always thought the answer lies in limiting the time a replay official can look at a review, and severely so. Like 10-15 seconds. I’ve been of the mind that if you can’t see a mistake with one or two replays, it’s close enough to let go. But that’s how I see it, and what I see in 10-15 seconds will differ from the next jamoke. It may lessen the problem, but it won’t erase it.
Having fellow officials monitor the screens could be the problem. It can feel like either the replay official or on-field ref is trying to justify what the other saw, instead of looking with their own eyes, or at least making a case for why the other made the call they did. Which is partly why they can take so goddamn long. Maybe replay officials should be trained on their own, and given definite lines on what constitutes “clear and obvious.” The separation from on-field refs could help, but again, would come down to the perception of that individual.
At least with the restrictive time limit we could keep the game moving. But these are the growing pains of a system that may never be perfect. After all, they’re still run by people. And don’t people love the “human element?”