Football’s adoption of VAR is another symptom of an era that can’t stand nuance

A breathtakingly glib solution to a problem that really wasn’t that pressing in the first place. 

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One of the great fallacies you often hear about sport is that it offers a form of escapism from the problems and dismays of the real world. This is, of course, piffle and nonsense. Turn on the Champions League and you’ll see Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City taking on Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain in a competition sponsored by Russia’s Gazprom. Play a round of links golf and you’ll be made bleakly aware of the ever-creeping threat of man-made climate change. And the continuing presence of Colin Murray on our television screens is a reminder that under no circumstances can British society be considered a meritocracy.

In the Premier League, meanwhile, a more subtle re-enactment has been taking place. The current season, which began two weeks ago, is the first to incorporate video replay technology to review on-field decisions, in the form of the video assistant referee (VAR). If this strikes you from the outside as a fairly minor development, merely bringing the Premier League into line with leagues in other countries such as Italy and Germany, then rest assured: in the overheated screaming chamber of English football, no such thing exists.

And so the opening round of fixtures saw overturned goals, disputed penalties and plenty of exactly the sort of thing video technology was originally meant to extinguish: contention, controversy, rancorous debate, bureaucratic stalemate and a strong whiff of burning injustice on all sides. Yes, English football is finally enjoying its Brexit moment, and even if the stakes in the VAR debate are substantially lower, the similarities between the two – and the underlying trends beneath them – go well beyond the superficial.

The first point to make is that VAR is a breathtakingly glib solution to a problem that really wasn’t that pressing in the first place. Duff refereeing decisions have always been part of the folklore of football, from Geoff Hurst’s disputed second goal in the 1966 World Cup final to Diego Maradona’s Hand of God two decades later, and for most fans there seemed to be a tacit, if grudging, acceptance that your team was as likely to benefit from a poor call as to suffer from one.

Over recent years, however, the biggest clubs began to challenge this wisdom. Having spent billions on assembling star-studded teams, they were none too happy at the prospect of having their supremacy toppled by some dodgy offside decision. And so, on both the domestic and international fronts, they successfully lobbied authorities to introduce VAR as soon as possible, even though the technology was still being trialled. The result has been to radically alter the feel and nature of a game that for decades has thrived on a light-touch, laissez-faire approach to legislative reform.

Most sports, you see, have a built-in grey area: an innate ambiguity that admits – in certain cases – that a decision could legitimately be made either way. Subjective sports such as boxing and gymnastics have multiple judges to smooth out discrepancies of opinion and encourage consensus. Timed sports like athletics and cycling have the dead heat. And even after introducing replay technology, cricket retains a grey area known as the “umpire’s call”, stipulating that in exceptionally marginal circumstances, the original decision of the on-field umpire will hold sway.

Football’s grey area once resided in its unspoken but broadly accepted tolerance of refereeing error: unspoken because while maxims such as “the benefit of the doubt goes to the attacking team” were never formally codified, they helped contribute to the game’s rapid flow. VAR has eradicated that at a stroke. The spontaneity of a goal being scored or a penalty being awarded has largely been lost, celebrations tempered by the now-familiar sight of the referee trotting to the sideline to examine the incident for himself or herself, often for minutes at a time. On the opening weekend, Manchester City had a goal ruled out against West Ham on the basis of video analysis, which concluded – after an interminable cycle of frame-by-frame replays and little coloured lines drawn perpendicularly from the defender’s armpit to the ground – that City’s Raheem Sterling had been offside by a millimetre.

Let’s take a moment to consider the absurdity of this scenario. A rule initially invented to prevent attackers from goal-hanging – standing next to the goal waiting for the ball to come to them – has morphed into a protracted pursuit of objective perfection, one in which entire games and careers and livelihoods now hang on the most infinitesimal of fractions. Or as former referee Keith Hackett wrote in the Telegraph: “VAR was designed to eliminate major, obvious errors. My fear is that we are going down a path where definitive judgements are being made without conclusive evidence.”

This is the tyranny of margins, and in case you’re beginning to wonder what all this has to do with Brexit, then consider the intellectual circuitry that allows a 52-48 referendum to be interpreted as an unequivocal, unassailable mandate. VAR and Brexit spring from the same popular impulse: an abhorrence of nuance, a growing intolerance to the very concept of ambiguity, a demand for total certainty, even when its pursuit becomes self-defeating, even when no such certainty exists.

And as with Brexit, the debate over VAR has come to subsume everything else around it: one long circular shouting match in which arguments calcify and positions entrench, defined ultimately not by sporting ethics or by judicial principle but by self-interest.

Jonathan Liew is chief sports writer of the Independent

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con