Football is back. After a painful 10 weeks in which the country toiled with a deadly pandemic, the return of the beautiful game was the medicine we needed to lift some dampened spirits. Whilst the lack of fans makes for a peculiar and unsettling viewing (despite the commendable efforts by EA sports to provide fake crowd noise), most fans can take comfort in the fact that normal services will soon enough be resumed. We’ll enjoy a pre-match beer again, pubs will be packed to the rafters on a Saturday rumbling with dumbfounded optimism, we’ll travel countrywide and witness moments of pure last-minute-winning elation again… Or will we?
The brief disappearance of football from our lives meant there was a moment to savour in the middle of lockdown; a moment when the existence of a toxic virus tearing its way through the game had been all but forgotten. This virus has the frightening potential to take away some of life’s most spectacular, adrenaline-fuelled moments and turn our beautiful game into a robotic simulation with zero space for humanity. To add insult to injury, it is cursed with an evil ambition to destroy the potential for a future of iconic sporting moments. They call it ‘VAR’.
I am not going to discuss the metaphorical ‘VAR (Video Assistant Referee)’ virus without acknowledging the tragic impact that Covid-19 has inflicted on our football community. All 20 premier league clubs will have lost fans during this unforgiving pandemic; there will be empty seats when we return to our respective grounds which will need to be reallocated. Players and managers have been deeply affected too, Dean Smith, Aston Villa’s manager, tragically lost his father in May after contracting the virus in a care home. Dean is now tasked with keeping his father’s boyhood club in the premier league, and must do so facing the empty stands where his father would once sit to cheer on his beloved claret and blue. Dean is certainly not alone and my heart goes out to all those who now live with the reality of attending future football matches without their usual companions.
The truth is, as devastating as it may be, coronavirus will one day be behind us and life will move on. Worryingly, I’m unsure the same can be said for ‘VAR’. For those who may need a little context, the Video Assistant Referee was first written into football law in 2018, making its way to the Premier League for the 19/20 campaign. The primary reason for its introduction on our shores was the perception that English football was riddled with ‘shocking’ decisions that were costing teams points, and ultimately, their position in the league.
The most vocal supporters of VAR were undoubtedly managers, who used it’s lack of application as the perfect excuse for why their team may have lost. As the 2010’s progressed, the age-old managerial press conference excuse of blaming the ‘ref’ was slowly displaced by a cry for technology to solve all of football’s problems. Rather than accepting our game was beautiful in all its controversies, the football authorities caved to the very managers that are unlikely to be present in the game in 10 years time. As always, fans will be left to pick up the pieces.
As of July 1st, studies suggest as many as 93% of refereeing decisions were correct during the pre-VAR era, meaning the standard of human officiating in the English game was pretty remarkable – but that wasn’t enough. For context, the same study suggested that 98.9% of refereeing decisions were deemed to be correct following a 2 year worldwide trial using VAR.
The irony of the study and the crux of many anti-VAR arguments is that football decisions are subjective and remain up for debate even with the application of high resolution, ultra slow-motion video replays. Whilst this is undeniably true, this argument has many faltering components and should not form the basis of any anti-VAR movement. If the technology is eradicating clear wrong decisions and deliberating (usually correctly) on a number of close calls, it is serving its purpose as an aggregator of decision making.
Without question, VAR improves the number of correct refereeing decisions in a football game. However, such an argument misses the point entirely regarding VAR. The truly poisonous and game-threatening failures of the technology lie in two definitive areas:
1. The technology inherently favours cancelling goals
Firstly, the technology in its current form is programmed to unfavourably disallow goals. Since the beginning of this season, 25 VAR decisions have led to a resulting goal, whereas 48 have been disallowed. There have been 30 goals chalked out because of offside, yet only 8 awarded after an incorrect offside call. 10 goals have been ruled out due to ‘handball’ – a rule which roughly 0 football fans totally understand – whilst 2 goals have been awarded after a wrong handball decision. The only increase in goal potential has derived by the rise in the number of penalties and indirectly through a growing number of red cards.
These figures spell it out quite simply: VAR in its current format provides us with a transformed game. A game which has considerably fewer goals from open play, more goals disallowed, more red cards (and subsequent bans) & more penalties. Given most of the groundbreaking rule changes in football in the last century have been enforced to enhance the entertainment of the sport, VAR feels like a drastically backward step. But such patterns are to be expected if VAR continues. Given the break in play following a goal, each goal scored is currently analysed for offside or defensive misdemeanors in the build-up. Clearly, a significant number of fouls, handballs and marginal offsides will have been missed in the lead up to every goal due to human error – this accounts for the 48 disallowed goals this season. Furthermore, once the technology is in place, it’s difficult to argue that it should only intervene with ‘clear and obvious’ errors, as the boundary between ‘obvious’ and ‘ambiguous’ will then provide the sticking point for every single VAR argument in the game.
The evidence presented clearly points out that the system is skewed so that VAR will always cancel out more goals than it awards. The reason is simple, the only time that VAR can positively award a goal is in response to a previously disallowed goal by the officials. Anyone who watches football will understand that there are far more goals scored in a football season then there are disallowed. In turn, VAR inherently favours disallowing goals – it is a negative tool.
2. The technology threatens the inexplicable joy of every goal scored
Most importantly, VAR constrains the uninterrupted joy that a goal should create in football. I firmly believe this is the overriding reason as to why football is the greatest sport on the planet. I speak for many when I say that several of my life’s most jubilant moments have derived from a football hitting the back of the net. Let’s reminisce: Agueroooo 2012, Torres at the Camp Nou, Gerrard against Olympiakos, Sturridge against Wales… pure, unadulterated, adrenaline-fuelled, stupendous joy. Nothing matches it. These goals are the reason fans travel up and down the country and across Europe watching their team religiously; we’re chasing the buzz, clutching to the possibility that we might see the illustrious, rare, 90th minute winner.
With the presence of VAR in our game, these moments are in grave danger. Regardless of whether the goal-in-question is chalked off or not, the moment of pure elation is hindered in the knowledge that VAR may come along to spoil the party. You can, and never will, celebrate those historic goals in the same way – as you’re doing so with a seed of doubt that the ball may have perhaps brushed the upper arm of your player 30 seconds prior to the goal.
If you’re happy to sacrifice those truly special moments and replace them with half-hearted celebrations, restricted in the knowledge that VAR may be there to thwart your joy, then I think we will have to agree to disagree. In truth, I also believe you’re following football for all the wrong reasons. I plead with you to ask yourself: Is inadvertently ruining the greatest moments in football, and the most memorable moments in people’s lives, really worth it for a 5.9% increase in correct officiating decisions?
On a personal level, I still speak regularly of the moment Stephen Ward scored the winner for Wolves against Liverpool at Anfield 10 years ago. It sticks in my mind as one of my fondest football memories, and one of the warmest memories I have of my dad, a lifelong Wolves fan with whom I shared my earliest football experiences. The moment the goal was scored was utterly euphoric and the unmatchable joy which was exchanged between myself, my dad, my brother and my uncle will stay with me for a lifetime.
Should this moment be reciprocated today, the presence of VAR would sadly nullify a considerable level of the excitement and such special memories would cease to exist. The ruling authorities are to blame, an unfortunate vindication that those who make the important decisions in football do so without the interests of the genuine fans that uphold their very institutions. You only need to attend one football match this season to understand the collective frustration towards what technology is doing to the game. ‘Fuck VAR’ etc – you get the gist. However, what was first frustration has since festered into a growing sadness that football may never provide me with another uninterrupted ‘Stephen Ward’ moment whilst VAR remains present in football. The essence of the fan experience has been stripped away from us. The beautiful game is at risk of losing its real beauty. VAR out.
By Oliver Kriskinans
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