WHEN the geeks of Silicon Valley told us about the oncoming revolution around 20 years’ ago, they said technology would make our lives easier and more enriched. The many gadgets and gizmos they were developing in Californian garages and science parks would allow us to have more leisure time. Technology would bring more precision to our lives and eradicate the mundane. Anyone who disagreed with this sentiment was labelled a luddite, “too old” or “stuck in the mud”.
It is true that technology has changed our lives, but for so many inventions, the real beneficiaries have been the people inventing the tech and those whose skill-sets cannot be replaced by machinery or those who have been educated in the new ways. Eradication of the mundane has, roughly translated, meant the reduction in jobs that are now being carried out by technology. We do not realise it fully, but we are creating a whole segment of society that will never have meaningful work to do. Someone has even invented a programme that can produce written copy on the back of a few key words.
The latest species at threat is the football referee. Their role is rapidly being replaced by techies in dark rooms on an industrial estate, anonymous figures with no real accountability other than to pass judgement on goals, offsides and handballs. We call it Video Assistant Referee (VAR), but it has rapidly assumed a prefix that has seven letters and begins with F.
If football is about emotions, then VAR is endangering the very spirit of the game, a bucket of cold water waiting to be poured over the stadium, dousing the spectators and taking away their joy or dismay. For every VAR decision there is a winner and a loser, but ultimately, if this ludicrous process becomes normalised, we could be faced with a very different type of sport than the one that has lived on for decades.
Football will become an industry of fractions and millimetres, more complex than the old goal average calculation that once determined the fate of teams in championship races or relegation battles. For a game that is defined by men (and women) in boots kicking a ball, often hundreds of metres, and one where goals are decided by that ball being completely over a whitewashed line, such meticulous calculations are a little ridiculous. As we saw over the Christmas period, offside decisions can be made based on a stray sleeve or a hand being over a computer-generated line. Surely, VAR wasn’t intended to be used this way?
VAR is clearly not being used correctly, it is being adopted as a crutch for officials who are shifting the blame. No longer is human judgement the determining factor. A goal goes in and the fans go wild, but then it has to be rubber-stamped by “Stockley Park”. The referee has, seemingly, passed ultimate responsibility to the shadows. These characters are unknown, nobody can berate them as people and the referee can take the modern approach to customer service, “not my decision, nothing to do with me.” It’s call centre refereeing.
Wasn’t VAR supposed to be a solution to contentious situations? In other words, the ball being over the line or not, or a penalty decision – the sort of talking point incident that has characterised football history. VAR is almost trying to change football history.
There is a very strong argument that given the vast sums of money that drench the global game, we should be striving for perfection, but when so many goals are sent to the headmaster’s room for verification, the spontaneity of the game – one of its key elements – is being driven away. The fans, again one of the vital ingredients, are being robbed of the emotional pleasure that football has always provided.
Technology and all its attempts to make society “perfect” is hitting at the very thing that makes football a game for the masses – the rise and fall of expectation, the excitement of the moment and the thrill of witnessing a genuine happening. VAR, in its current form, is eradicating that by over-polishing a piece of raw carbon and damaging its very appeal – an imperfect, rough and ready object that enthrals people, even in this age of distraction and destruction. The winners? The tech guys, of course.