Following on from Stamford Bridge, Stephen Curnow has some pretty strong opinions about VAR. Let him tell you all about them, through the medium of mime. Sorry, words...
I started writing this article before the Chelsea vs Norwich game. Honest to God I did. Even in the midst of the warm glow that followed Kelechi Iheancho’s reinstated goal on Tuesday, VAR already had the whiff of emperor’s new clothes to me. So I was pretty grateful that the Chelsea game panned out the way it did, because it seemed to me to provide some pretty strong evidence that this might well be the case. So thanks for that chaps. It’s rare that watching Norwich ever goes to plan in any way, so I’ll take it.
Nevertheless, the advent of VAR is clearly irreversibly being bestowed upon us, with this season’s FA Cup finally marking its arrival in top-level British football. During the first game, Brighton vs Crystal Palace, it all went ok. All the leads presumably plugged in, and the geek at Heathrow Airport managed to CTRL, ALT DELETE and not forget his password. The general consensus was that it was of some benefit to the “live” team officiating on the day, even if it wasn’t immediately clear if the intention was to provide an resource for the match official to refer to in making a decision, or whether he was just meant to get on with it and await a metaphorical tap on his shoulder if he made a real howler.
The use of such technology has been on the cards for some time, as scrutiny on referees’ decisions becomes more intense, and other sports, most notably cricket, rugby and tennis have seemed to get their own houses in order and football has made some progress of its own with the introduction of goal-line technology.
Indeed, the fact that football is now making a big deal about following the lead of other sports, rugby in particular, is interesting in itself. Those of a certain vintage will remember that in the early days of the Premier League, dissent was punishable by moving the infringing team back a further ten yards. This was a commendable and successful effort to reduce the incidence of infringing players perpetually arguing and obstructing free-kicks being taken, yet it was discontinued due to it being difficult for non-rugby playing nations to understand. Since then, this perpetual nuisance has soared to previously unheralded levels, to the point where some players, Gary Cahill in the first Chelsea game maybe, seemingly oblige referees to hold a short conference following every decision. Unfortunately, VAR seems to play into the hands of such behaviour. Before he got his come-uppance for his dastardly conduct, Alvaro Morata demonstrated the potential for belligerent players to harangue the referee into reviewing every decision that they don’t like by drawing their imaginary TV screens.
One of the main criticisms of VAR is that it is difficult to decide at which point you start or stop reviewing the footage. Unlike rugby, tennis or cricket, football does not happen in manageable pieces. Even in tennis where a player can “challenge” mid rally, if his challenge proves to be unsubstantiated they can replay the point. Football is trickier. It doesn’t happen in convenient chunks that can be rehashed. Nor does it provide frequent stoppages to allow regular reviews. If a free kick is given and subsequently proved to be erroneous, how does the game restart? It also doesn’t seem to apply to seemingly less significant incidents on the halfway line, no matter what they might lead up to. Also, even the apparent golden goose of Iheanacho’s goal raised more questions. In his case it all happened pretty quickly, but if he’d received the ball 30 yards further from goal, are the defensive team entitled to stop seeing as an offside has been given, or are they all obliged to play on until some arbitrary point where it is all conclusively proven one way or the other?
We’ve effectively been warmed up for VAR with a titration of goal-line technology. But goal-line has two distinct advantages, being both immediate and absolute. The latter is particularly important. The ball has either crossed the line or it hasn’t. Take the Willian example. The replays seemed to demonstrate two things: Firstly, there was contact from Klose, Secondly, Willian’s fall was pre-meditated and exaggerated. In fairness to Klose, there is nothing in the rules of the game to say that contact with an opponent definitively constitutes a foul, it being a contact sport after all. In fairness to Willian, he’s not obliged to fall in any particular way once he’s been fouled. Maybe this one therefore remains in some sort of “umpire’s call” category, but it’s interesting that even half an hour after the game the BBC studio panel couldn’t quite agree what the correct decision should have been.
Of course there are some significant scenarios where it is going to work very well, Iheanacho’s goal being one, as it demonstrated that he had been played onside by a defender’s foot when he had scored goal that would otherwise have been wrongly disallowed. But, other than marginal offsides, very few of the real rotten decisions that referees make are black and white and even fewer are actually borne of them not seeing things sufficiently. They are usually a matter of poor interpretation, complicated by bias, fear and self-preservation.
With the notable exception of the unusually ballsy display from Graham Scott, the general truth is that referees adjust the parameters of their decision making at their own convenience, under the guise of what they pompously call “game management” but it is fundamentally just a means of altering rules to their own convenience. Mark Clattenburg let a pretty big rabbit out of the bag when he said that he allowed Spurs to “self-destruct” at Chelsea a couple of years ago, fundamentally meaning that he was applying a different set of rules to the match because of the circumstances around it.
This is not to imply anything necessarily sinister about all of this. It’s more a matter of convenience and self-preservation. If the foul on Willian had been committed on the halfway line, it would have almost certainly been given. A little tickle from the fingers is enough for a simple handball in most areas of the pitch, but it has to be a full-on Berra on the goal-line where the stakes are higher. We all know that a team are vulnerable to a bit of evening up if they’ve had a dodgy one go in their favour, which inevitably ends with the ref seeing some pushing from a corner so he can even it all up. The theory is that you just have to be equitable rather than correct. There is also the blind spot that referees have for fouls in the first few minutes, when you can get away with blue murder. Referees are of course guilty of obfuscating the rules, coming up with intangible bollocks such as “unnatural positions” and such like.
Sadly, in implementing VAR, the governing bodies have thrown their eggs into a basket with benefits that are marginal at best, and in doing so have passed up some altogether more substantial opportunities to improve the fairness and spectacle of a game of football. They could have reduced the epidemic of time wasting, such as late substitutions where the furthest guy from the tunnel trudges across the pitch with all the urgency of a kid heading to school on the first day of term. They could even have properly formalised the whole business of time-keeping and dispensed with the entirely arbitrary system that we have now, where you get one minute added in the first half and four in the second, and then a bit more until the ball is up in the air, pretty much regardless of what has actually happened. They could even have taken the fight to con artists like Pedro, and found a way of punishing such cheating to the point where it is no longer worth a gamble.
Ultimately, VAR may well simply add another level to the already murky waters of officiating the game today. It could conceivably serve to increase the pressures on referees in circumstances when they are able to review decisions indefinitely and still not decide. Even eliminating the occasional howler might serve to increase the sense of injustice for those poor decisions that might remain. Of course there will be the occasional fuck-up, but Wednesday night proved that grandiose upstarts like Conte will always find a reason to be dissatisfied, TV or no TV. If players didn’t cheat and managers like him didn’t condone it then we would be in this mess. Ultimately, referees would be better assisted by being given the freedom and courage to genuinely apply the laws of the game as they see them. The decisions that Graham Scott got right last Wednesday were because he had backbone, not TV screens, so maybe we might actually find that they get more right than wrong.
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