Armpits & Old Boot Laces: The VAR Mess Will Never Be Successfully Cleaned Up

by | Dec 30, 2019

Occasional contradictions between the spirit and the letter of the law have vexed legal minds for centuries. From the Bible, through the writing of William Shakespeare, to interpretations of the constitution of the United States of America, the matter of how literally we should interpret laws and rules has been vigorously debated, and seldom in good faith. On the one side sit the absolutists, who believe that laws are worthless unless followed to the letter. On the other, however, sit those who believe that the intentions of those who write laws are important, and that room for ambiguity and interpretation are fundamental to them working as intended. And never the twain shall meet.

Professional football has long been gripped by the same debate and its apparent contradictions, of late. On the one hand, we all cry out for consistency in the application of the laws of the game during matches. On the other, though, there is a simultaneous demand for the application of “common sense” to refereeing, and on top of this we have to throw in a toxic fog of hyper-partisanship, which coats every opinion with a veneer of bad faith. It is entirely predictable that our own biases come into play whenever the matter is up for discussion. Obviously, supporters are going to be more vocal when decisions go against their teams and are more likely to keep their mouths shut when they go in their favour.

This holiday season may yet turn out to be the Christmas that killed VAR, but then again it may not be, too. It has been clear since the start of the season that there is a groundswell of anger growing against the technology now being used to refine refereeing decisions during Premier League matches, and over the last week or so that noise has become deafening, shutting out just about any other conversation about this critical point of the season. More supportive voices are being marginalised and crowded out, and there is no risk of nuance. Anger, of course, dominates current discourse of the subject.

Almost every match seemed to bring with it a contentious moment or two – an out of place armpit, a stray leg, or a tackle that could be interpreted five different ways from five different camera angles – and it has started to feel as though we could be approaching a critical juncture, at which fans may start to simply walk away from the game altogether rather than continuing to watch matches which increasingly feel as though they don’t make sense any more. Screaming into the void in the general direction of an inanimate camera may be an understandable reaction to all of this, but it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the matter, because video assistance for referees isn’t a straightforward black and white issue, even if it is usually reduced to “referee’s eyes good, camera lens bad”, or vice versa.

VAR is, ultimately, technology that probably isn’t quite advanced enough to do what its most enthusiastic acolytes would like, attempting to implement a set of rules which weren’t overhauled first in order to accommodate the unforgiving eye of the cameras, and implemented atrociously, with lengthy delays surrounding decisions, fans inside grounds being left in the dark over the reasoning behind decisions given, and the remit for use already having moved far beyond the “clear and obvious fouls” that were trumpeted as its main raison d’etre.

The problems with the conversation about what to do about all of this are several. Firstly, and most significantly, the abolitionists are steering the online debate, even though the likelihood of the Premier League, the FA, UEFA, FIFA, or whoever just tearing out all of this technology and trying to pretend that the last couple of seasons haven’t happened is close to zero. Too much has been invested – both financially and ideologically – for any of these bodies to admit that they might have messed up.

These are the people, let us not forget, who awarded two World Cup finals to Russia and Qatar. Even if we suspend our disbelief and go along with the completely discredited notion that these decisions weren’t completely corrupt, Russia’s attitude towards journalists or LGBTQ people and Qatar’s towards worker deaths only resulted in FIFA digging their heels in further and doubling down. When it was pointed out that playing a World Cup finals in the Middle East in the summer was potentially dangerous for players’ well-being… they just moved it to the middle of the winter instead. Football’s governing bodies are not very good at admitting that they may have got something wrong.

Secondly, where we are now is the result of decades of change within the entire culture of professional football that isn’t just going to unwind, should the Premier League pack its cameras away and put Stockley Park up for sale on Rightmove tomorrow. At a point in the past, professional football decided that it was too important to get decisions “wrong” any more. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many sponsors and broadcasters to keep happy. There’s an industry that needs to be kept oiled, here.

There have plenty of others happy to allow this culture to fester, too. Managers have been more than happy to use match officials as a human shield to deflect criticism of their own shortcomings because the culture of hiring and firing them had become so trigger-happy and skittish, whilst the media has been more than happy to foster controversy and anger in the quest for clicks and eyeballs. In an age of multimedia, some people have even managed to monetise chanelling rage into views, growing fat off the money to be made from making people feel perpetually angry and aggrieved.

Not that much of the football media deserves to escape the blame for where we are now, though, of course, because they’re as responsible for building this culture as anybody else. TV broadcasters, meanwhile. started packing their rosters with unashamedly biased summarisers and pundits. Balanced and nuanced coverage went out the window in favour of manufactured controversy that looked good in in thirty second viral clips. Transfer deadline day is still treated like an unholy mixture of Christmas morning and judgement day. Managers are deemed failures if they lose more than two or three games in a row.

Sober and detached reporting has been jettisoned in favour of bug-eyed gurning, as former players, journalists and ringmasters stumble over their words in to express this rage in strange and interesting new ways. Apparently believing that swivel-eyed rage was somehow an indicator of “authenticity”, phone-in shows became stuffed with callers with so many grievances that they didn’t even seem to enjoy football very much any more. The more demented the better has been the curve of the last thirty years of football media culture, and no-one seems to have stopped to consider what the eventual side-effects of all of this might turn out to be.

This hardening of attitudes hasn’t just come within the professional game either, though. On its periphery, supporters have been fully complicit in all of this, becoming hopelessly unable to accept any decisions that didn’t go in their favour and unleashing torrents of abuse (as well as, frequently, completely unfounded accusations of bias or corruption) at referees who dare to give decisions against their precious teams. We called for “consistency”, but only for so long as this “consistency” benefited our precious teams. Some fan bases managed to persuade themselves that specific referees had vendettas against specifically their team. Unsurprisingly, no-one ever seems to believe that a referee might have a vendetta in favour of their club.

Meanwhile, many others have retreated into reassuring echo chambers in which the only football news they receive is uncritical and fawning reporting of their club alone. Most football writers will be familiar with the comment “well-written article”, which in modern currency means “I agree with the worldview of this article.” Football supporters no longer like football. They like their team winning football matches, and when that doesn’t happen it feels as though it leads to a form of cognitive dissonance that shorts out the rational part of our brains.

Useful and convenient though it is for supporters to other the angriest and least rational, though, we’ve all been complicit in the vilification of referees, and now we’re reaping that particular whirlwind. Collectively, we’ve decided that football was too important for the occasional decision to be wrong. We’ve allowed a proliferation of different camera angles and slow motion replays to persuade us that referees were incompetent and that this was a problem that needed fixing. We demand consistency when it suited us, and common sense when it didn’t. We come up with increasingly inventive justifications for sacking managers after a couple of defeats. We hurl abuse, whether from stands during matches or on social media afterwards. These are inconvenient truths, but they’re truths nevertheless.

This conflation of circumstances wasn’t entirely deliberate, though. At the same time that all of this was happening, the pace of the professional game was increasing at a rate that did make matches more difficult to officiate using human eyes only. However, that matter of “importance” meant that the changes that came about couldn’t allow more forgiveness for either players or officials, or greater grey areas in terms of the application of the laws of the game. Offside decisions are being judged by armpits and boot laces precisely because of this. And the biggest problem that the VAR abolitionists face is that this entire culture, this way of seeing the game, isn’t going to go away as a result of the last four months in the Premier League.

The biggest irony of the introduction of VAR is that it was released into a football culture that had persuaded itself that it needed it, but which is emotionally and psychologically hopelessly ill-prepared to be able to cope with it. This has, in the Premier League, been compounded by the decision to include offside calls, thereby ignore the warnings of those who urged that its use should be unobtrusive as possible. Inconsistencies within matches, across leagues, and across jurisdictions have also only added to the feeling that a controversial technology that needed to be introduced gently has been implemented with the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop.

Regardless of this, though, what happens if VAR is canned? Within weeks, people would be clamouring for its reintroduction, just as soon as a big decision in a match didn’t go the way they had hoped. We’re in too deep with our partisanship, with our belief that football is too important to get things wrong, and with the conviction that what really matters is where its money ends up, rather than being a harmless form of entertainment for people to consume. Until we all remember that this is all just a game, that football can simultaneously matter and be of no consequence whatsoever, the lessons of the last four months will not be learned, because ultimately VAR is little more than a physical manifestation of where we’ve been headed for the last three decades. Unrolling that is going to take much more than merely switching off this particular set of cameras.