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13 November 2023

Why it’s too late to save football from VAR

Video refeering is sucking the joy out of the game.

By Clive Martin

There is a new, well-intentioned, but meddlesome flaw at the heart of football – one which has become all too familiar for fans.

It’s that heartstopping lag between a goal or a full-blooded challenge, and the official confirmation that it is legitimate, or otherwise. It’s those uncanny, time-stretching pauses where players run to the corner flag to celebrate, yet keep half an eye on the man in black. At home, this often manifests in a strangely yogic body position; knees bent, straight back, hanging in mid air. Waiting to erupt one way or another.

This is the phenomenon of VAR dead time, the anxious junctures that now punctuate the game. 

At its best, video assistant refereeing sorts out the kind of decisions that can haunt a team for a generation. Think Frank Lampard’s phantom goal in the 2010 World Cup, or the Hand of God, or Thierry Henry’s galling handball against Ireland. But at its worst, VAR is baffling, protracted and emotionally abusive. It can suck the life out of some games, and tip others into farce. It’ll have you screaming “That’s his f***ing chest!” at a pub television and, increasingly, it presents more questions than answers.

VAR discourse has swallowed up every other conversation about the game. It’s also shone a spotlight on Stockley Park, the HQ of a shady, unelected group of ex-referees and video analysts who decide whether games are won or lost. 

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During the recent Tottenham vs Chelsea fixture there were seventeen minutes of back and forth with Stockley Park, based on two goals, four disallowed goals, a red card and couple of dodgy challenge reviews. That the VAR team made their calls according to the laws of the game did not matter. These jarring pauses and bitty little earpiece exchanges turned a compelling match into something that barely resembled football. It was a game that, despite all the new-fangled technology and by-the-book decision making, felt utterly out of control. 

During Newcastle vs Arsenal a few days before, perhaps the most VAR-centred goal of all time was scored; an Anthony Gordon finish which may or may not have contained an out-of-play ball, a foul and an offside, all in one fluid movement. Watching the game in a busy pub that evening, it reminded me of Kevin Costner endlessly replaying the Zapruder film in Oliver Stone’s JFK, trying to make logic out of random bodily reactions. The Key Match Incidents Panel, an independent group set up by the Premier League to provide accountability to Stockley Park, deemed the goal decision correct, but pointed out two missed red cards in the same game.

[See also: The celebrity chef is dead]

The debate about VAR never seems to subside, only presenting ever more complicated incidents, some as open to interpretation as a Rothko canvas. What does appear to be shifting is the game’s faith in it.

When the Premier League first adopted video assistant referee technology in the 2019-20 season, it was meant to iron out the vagaries and inconsistencies of football once and for all. The feeling was that there was too much at stake to leave decisions vulnerable to human error.

Three years in and VAR is just as aggravating as the injustices it sought to rectify. It has created a culture akin to an art school “crit” session, where subjective views on on-pitch incidents run wild. Half times, post-match press conferences, podcasts and talk radio are now given entirely over to these incidents, and pundits are often encouraged to take opposing sides on the matter, offering adversarial, sometimes absurd opinions to keep the viewers engaged. In true Talk Sport parlance, it has become a circus. 

While TV broadcasters seem to love this controversy, fans seem to be increasingly alienated. Not only are VAR decisions slow and draining, the debates surrounding them can be tiresome, forced, depressingly mandatory. At full time after the Tottenham vs Chelsea match, my social media feeds were ablaze with people making statements to the effect of “Let’s hear about the game, not the decisions”. The veteran commentator Guy Mowbray possibly said it best when he declared: “VAR in its current form and procedure is not enhancing football in any way. We’re watching debates and points of law rather than a game.” The walking meme Richard Keys chimed in with a blog post simply titled “Every Fucking Week…”. 

Yet, despite VAR’s crumbling status, many fans continue to campaign in the wrong direction. They focus not on the inherent fallibility and interpretative nature of fouls and handballs (offsides at least appear to have been sorted out) – but instead convince themselves of sinister “agendas” against their clubs, and of biased, corrupt or inadequate referees. Officials who were born within 100 miles of Liverpool are accused of being die hard Koppites; mistakes from seasons before are held up as conclusive proof that the Football Association is out to get your team. Rather than being a transparent, systemised way of picking through the complexities of the game, VAR has created a wave of conspiracy.

It also fosters exactly what it set out to destroy, a kind of magical, “you win some you lose some”, style of thinking. When the Tottenham defender Cristian Romero was sent off for a dangerous – but arguably legal – challenge in a game against Chelsea last week, many Chelsea fans took to saying that it was some kind of payback, divine punishment for an incident where Romero blatantly tugged Marc Cucurella’s hair and got away with it the season before. Football has always been a game full of superstition, mystic belief systems and paranoia, and VAR has only exacerbated this.

So what needs to change? Depressingly, the answer might be that we just need to saddle it, adopt those rattling pauses and cosmic gifts into our understanding of the game, just as goal-hanging and waist-high tackles were once part of it. Some will tell you that VAR can be better, that it is indeed done better in other places, but to me, this feels like wishful thinking based on highlights packages and Champions League games – a kind of selective optimism.

At this point, it feels like suggesting any kind of reforms to the system would only add to the problems. That somehow making it more thorough would only further suck the life out of the game further. Of course, while truly egregious examples – like Luis Díaz’s disallowed goal against Tottenham, or Kai Havertz’s horrific tackle on Sean Longstaff – could have been handled differently, making VAR “better” could make the wider game worse.

Here, it becomes an almost quantum conundrum. Of course, you could scrap it altogether, but can you imagine just how annoying Gary Neville would be then?

[See also: Did celebrity ruin David Beckham?]

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