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22 May 2024

The theatre and the misery of VAR

The refereeing technology has made football a better TV sport – and ruined the live game.

By Tim Pears

The Premier League’s 2023-24 season, for all its overblown hype, reached a predictable conclusion: the richest club won the title, while the three promoted clubs bounced back into the Championship. Through a season-long series of bizarre errors, video-assisted refereeing (VAR) became the most argued-over phenomenon of the title race. It began on day one, with Wolves denied a last-minute penalty, and probable draw, at Old Trafford after the Manchester United goalkeeper missed the ball and punched the Wolves striker Saša Kalajdžić. It continued in October with comical miscommunication between the VAR official and the on-field referee denying Liverpool a goal at Tottenham. And it reached its nadir at Anfield in March when Liverpool, again, were denied a decisive penalty against Manchester City, whose Jérémy Doku had planted his studs in Alexis Mac Allister’s chest.

Five years ago, while VAR was being trialled in the FA Cup and its introduction to the Premier League was being considered, I wrote an essay entitled “Why VAR will improve refereeing decisions and ruin football”. It turns out I was only half right: it has improved half the decisions, while ruining half of the game.

VAR’s introduction was inevitable once TV shows took advantage of what the medium offered to show instant replays of controversial incidents from half a dozen angles in slow-motion. It was obvious that six angles are better than a referee’s single pair of eyes, and that use of these angles should be incorporated into the game’s adjudication. It was a classic case of the tail (TV) wagging the dog (live football).

Football club managers were virtually unanimous in demanding the introduction of VAR, since TV had long provided them with evidence of referees’ incompetence. A dismaying number of managers had conveniently blamed defeat on an official’s mistake rather than their goalkeeper’s blunder, or their own questionable tactics. The idea that VAR could reveal the sole truth of any incident was lent credence by the introduction of goal-line technology: cameras and computers provided near instantaneous certainty as to whether a ball had crossed a line. VAR relies not on technology, but on human interpretation of what cameras record. That judgement tends to be flawed, and contentious.

Managers and pundits make two exasperated demands of referees: that they are consistent in their judgement, and that they have a “feel” for the game. These are sensible requests. Unfortunately, they are also fundamentally incompatible. Take, for instance, penalties given for a handball in the box. A consistent approach decrees that if the ball strikes a defender’s arm but the arm is held against their body, it’s not handball; if the defender’s arm is away from their body, a penalty it is. This is a logical way to achieve consistency, even if it leads to the peculiar spectacle of defenders trying to tackle or block with both arms behind their backs. An intuitive approach (which ex-player pundits sometimes claim only those who have played the game can understand – ie, not referees) is to assess each incident on its own merits, and to decide how “natural” a defender’s actions are. This, too, is a sensible method. What we can’t have is both approaches at once.

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Four years into VAR’s use in the Premier League, it is ruining live matches for fans. The flow has been frustrated, matches halted for minutes at a time. A great goal is greeted by explosions of joy in the stadium. But wait: a VAR technician is checking for offside. After an interminable wait, that goal is chalked off because the striker was deemed offside by “the width of a kneecap”, as Lola Seaton once memorably put it in these pages.

I am grateful that my local team, Oxford City, plays in a league several tiers down from the top level, where VAR remains a distant nightmare, and football continues its essentially chaotic existence. Referees make mistakes with the confidence that those of us in the crowd who lambast them are bigger idiots than they are.

The great irony, however, and what I entirely failed to anticipate five years ago, is the extent to which football as TV entertainment has been improved by VAR. It’s a postmodern disruption, a metafictional addition to our 90-minute spectacle. The forensic scrutiny and proliferation of camera angles for each incident tend to reveal less its sole truth than its intricate ambiguity, like the same event recounted by half a dozen eyewitnesses. One of my favourite commentators, Jonathan Pearce, regularly proclaims during VAR delays, “This is ruining our game.”

“No, it’s not!” I yell from the sofa. “We love it!”

When the 20 Premier League clubs meet for their AGM in June, they will discuss a proposal to scrap VAR at the start of next season. It won’t happen. VAR’s lengthy interruptions, multiple angles, freeze-frames and slo-mos make for great TV, accompanied by outrage from commentators and post-match interviews with disgruntled coaches and bewildered players. Which is why we won’t be seeing the back of it any time soon.

[See also: In defence of the King Charles portrait]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024