VAR: Time to rethink before someone does it for us

WHEN technology moved in a new direction in the 1990s, we were told all the gadgets and gizmos being invented in Californian garages would make our lives less labour-intensive, simpler, more wonderful and enriched. Those that wondered what would happen to all the people who were not in finance or graduates of tech schools or designers didn’t foresee a future of service and call centres and coffee bars. They also wouldn’t have predicted that football, that simplest of games, would become more complex, less spontaneous and a slave to the mighty god VAR.

No, VAR is not a Norse god, not a miracle drug and it is certainly not the panacea for all the game’s ills. In fact, VAR has become a noose around the neck of football and while technology is a pre-requisite, it is not being applied properly. Just as business became over-fascinated with technology and didn’t quite know how to best leverage it, football is allowing the technology to damage the very essence of the world’s most popular pastime.

Is it appropriate to make football a precision game played at speed, a game where a fingertip can be considered offside when the virtual “line” cannot be seen by anyone other than men in dark rooms analysing the build-up to a “goal”? 

Was this what VAR was supposed to be all about – experts scanning every goal for reasons not to give it – like insurance companies desperately trying to find a get-out of every claim?

Wasn’t it about solving contention, not creating it? And when we mean contention, wasn’t the definition really to be applied to controversial incidents, not as an affirmation of every goal, every free kick, every card? If we allow the game to be decided by technicians rolling back the film, why do we really need referees, are they not the decision-makers or has the fear of accountability seen them embrace the opportunity to apportion blame to shady figures in dark rooms?

These are early days (actually, are they really early now?) and eventually, we will see we are destroying a fast-paced sport that was attractive to the masses because of its simplicity and its ease of interpretation.

How can someone be offside by millimetres when a goal or penalty wouldn’t be given in the same circumstances? And while the penalty area provides the markings to allow defenders to see if they are tackling in the danger zone, being offside by a fraction that cannot be seen by the naked eye seems ludicrous.

Too many decisions are being deferred, too many goals disallowed and some of the fun is being removed from football. Technology needs to be applied properly and in the spirit of the game. Above all, we have to remember this is not a case of sending people in space and needing life-saving accuracy, it is a game where the aim is sending a leather ball into a big goal that has big nets. And the players are not astronauts, they are men and women with all the faults that come with being a human being. Football is not played by robots. Yet.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

Has the absence of crowds created a purer, more focused game?

THE PREMIER League has been exciting so far with virtually every game delivering entertainment, drama and no small amount of controversy. After 28 fixtures, the goal-per-game ratio is an astonishing 3.68 – that’s higher than at any time in modern football history. In 2019-20, the ratio was 2.72 and in 2018-19 2.82. The trend has generally been upwards, but the goals have been pouring into the back of the net this early autumn.

Historically, this could have had something to do with the imbalance in the Premier, in other words, the rich thrashing the poor, but the results do not support that: Manchester United losing to Palace at home; City beaten  comprehensively by Leicester; and Tottenham slipping-up against Everton, for instance.

It’s not all raised glasses and clinking steins, for there’s a real elephant in the room and that’s Mr. VAR, that shadowy figure in a dark chamber dishing out penalties like Blue Peter badges.

The crazy thing about the whole VAR argument and the consequences of a finger nail being over a hypothetical line on the pitch, is that for a goal to be scored, the ball has to be completely over the line, yet the margins concerning offside are so narrow that players may consider wearing spray-on shirts to avoid a flap of material being blown over the line of shame. Furthermore, play is now being rewound like a scene from Basic Instinct to ensure something didn’t happen earlier in the game. Matches are lasting 100 minutes – God help us when we return to the stadiums, we are all going to miss that first train back home.

Some pundits have been livid, although good old Graeme Souness does point the blame not in the direction of VAR, but of the new rules. Quite right, but Mr. VAR is certainly the accomplice.

OK, there’s been 16 penalties, but goals have been coming from all directions, and some outstanding efforts, too. The Manchester City v Leicester game had a few crackers, including a glimpse of absolute brilliance from Jamie Vardy, who produced something straight out of Copacabana.

But why so many goals? Have we forgotten how to defend? It seems so, for almost every team seems to have defensive problems in some shape or form: Manchester United and City have looked very shaky, Chelsea have had enough of a suspect keeper, Liverpool started very sloppy and Fulham have been dire, and so on and so forth.

More and more teams are going for it, or is this the sign of more pressing forcing errors and keeping the ball in and around the penalty area? Or has it got something to do with empty stadiums?

The popular view is that football without fans is nothing and there’s something in that, but it is noticeable there’s less dissent, less rolling around as if a sniper had picked out the number 26, less added time and a more “get on with it” approach when incidents happen. There’s no choreographed goal celebrations, which must take-up a lot of time up and no player reaction from the mood of the crowd. Admittedly, that’s not football as we know it, but when there’s nothing else going on, we concentrate 100% on the football and the sound of leather on leather.

At first, it seemed weird, but people have become accustomed to it and what we are seeing to some extent is pure football, free of distractions. It may be the players just get on with playing and have one thing on their mind – goals.

It could make for a more open and interesting  season, certainly there have been very few bad games and every clash seems like a cup final occasion, the staggered kick-off times have created a huge shop window for every team.

We haven’t seen a goalless draw yet. Again, the trend has been for fewer 0-0s, from 32 in 2017-18 to 21 in 2019-20, but after 28 games, there have been just two score draws.

It won’t continue, for coaches will tighten their teams and the newly promoted clubs – who have seen 44 goals in their nine games (WBA 16, Leeds 15, Fulham 13), conceding an average of over three a game – will attempt to shore up their porous defences. Enthusiasm will inevitably wane as mid-tablers realise the slog is about avoiding the bottom three, and the title, Champions League and relegation issues will introduce an element of caution. But the chances are, the Premier could touch three goals per game this season.

And what of the impact of returning crowds? As much as the Football Association would like to think it is running this show, it’s in the hands of an uncertain and vague government, the behaviour of the masses and basic economics. At least the goals are keeping us royally entertained.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

 

 

 

VAR: It wasn’t meant to be this way

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA