Drifting Away From The Premier League
Another weekend, another round of fresh controversies. It long ago started to feel as though the implementation of Video Assistant Refereeing was that modern professional football is dictated by two wholly contradictory impulses. On the one hand, we have spent much of the last twenty years persuading ourselves that everything bad that happens to our teams on the pitch is a conspiracy of some sort. The ancient joke that “the referee must be blind” has morphed into “the referee is part of a conspiracy to deny my team winning every single match.” This has led to a near-fanatical demand for “The Truth.”
Well-worn lines are trotted out by those who really want all refereeing decisions to always go in their favour about wanting “consistency”, but this is a canard. We want the decisions that would benefit our team to go our way, but heaven forfend the pearl-clutching twenty-first century football supporter if the supporters of other teams also expect the same thing. It’s a horrible mass of entitlement, but it has led to us to where we are today. One can only guess at how the inner hiveminds of FIFA, UEFA or the Premier League might have been working at the point that they decided to implement this new technology, but it’s likely that “Perhaps this will shut them up once and for all” might even have been fairly high on their list of priorities.
This, however, has been rendered utterly pointless by football’s second (and entirely contradictory to the first) addiction. Controversy. Talking points. “The oxygen of publicity” was always a daft phrase to use in relation to actual living, oxygen-breathing people, but it holds more water when we look at football in a more conceptual sense. In a crowded marketplace, with more competition for our leisure time than ever before, professional football needs to keep that news cycle turning, and the implementation of VAR has done that, even if in just about the most exhausting, repetitive way possible.
Every weekend, there has been a freshly-manufactured controversy. And such is the pitch of the noise now surrounding all of this that maintaining focus anywhere else is starting to feel just about impossible. Players have already adjusted and are now playing for the Video Assistant. This, presumably, is as a result of instruction received from managers. In other words, those most directly affected by these changes have already made their adjustment, albeit in about the most cynical – some might say “realistic” – way possible.
The fans and the media, however, have not, and there remains a touchingly naive belief that, at some point in the next few days or weeks, somebody from the Premier League, or UEFA, or wherever, will stand up behind a lectern in front of a bunch of flashing cameras and declare themselves to have been wrong, and that the technology will now be ripped out and consigned to a lock-up facility while we take a step back from it all and try to figure out what – if anything – we want it to achieve. Considering all the allegations proved against football’s governing bodies in recent years and the number of apologies issued over them, this seems almost laughably optimistic. The mutually incompatible twin canards of absolute tribalism and absolute objectivity in decision-making, however, always made this inevitable.
Down on ground level, meanwhile, the actual game itself is becoming borderline unwatchable. Inside the stadia, supporters are routinely left sitting around wondering what on earth is going on while decisions are being made, and at home the situation isn’t a great deal better. The benefits of thirty-seven camera angles are routinely undermined by summarisers who can’t see the game outside their own personal biases, and who frequently don’t even seem to properly understand the laws of the game that they’re supposed to be explaining.
It remains a dereliction of duty on the part of the International Football Advisory Board – the FIFA committee which determines the laws of football – to have left those laws in such a mess while coming under a level a of scrutiny that they’ve never experienced before. The offside law is failing. The handball law is failing. And even the idea that the new technology can find some form of consistency feels like a joke when different federations and confederations are utilising it in completely different ways to each other, and when the decisions made even within each organisation seem to vary so much from week to week.
The effect, however, is alarming. Or at least it should be alarming, if you care about the long-term health of the game. Every week, you don’t have to look very hard on social media to see something written by someone who is just falling out of love with football. These feelings may have been triggered by something unfortunate that happened to their team, or they may be related to a more general feeling that “this is a game that I no longer think I can love.”
But if that feeling is widespread, people will start to just walk away and find something better to do with their time. If there is anything to this, the financial cost to the game in years to come could prove to be hugely significant. Fewer people means smaller television contracts, and it seems doubtful that many related to Europe’s top divisions have given a great deal of thought to what might happen if those contracts become worth substantially less than they used to be, in the future.
I lasted ten minutes of the match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur yesterday afternoon. The VAR chat had already started on the television, as though that was the reason we were watching rather than to see a sporting fixture between two football teams. The highlights shows are even worse. All significant refereeing decisions are still held down under the cold glare of analysis, and there have been complaints that shows like Match Of The Day have stopped even really talking about The Football at all. Radio, by all accounts, is even worse. VAR controversy and Fantasy Football talk, it would appear, is all that Five Live seems to think we’re interested in, nowadays.
So, I’m drifting away. It’s becoming boring, and I don’t understand what’s going on for an increasing proportion of the time. Of course, it doesn’t help that turbo-capitalism is continuing to boil everything down to a series of duopolies, in which only one or two teams from each country can realistically win anything. The greater this gap continues to get, the more people will walk away rather than watch entire league seasons in which a majority of some teams’ matches resemble nothing more than a parade of exhibition matches.
But professional football has already decided that it doesn’t care about this, and professional football now doesn’t seem to to care whether it defaces itself in the name of trying to find a degree of compatibility with a technology that it is in no way mature enough to be able to successfully adopt. The game at lower levels continues to exist without it, and perhaps lower division and non-league clubs will pick up a few strays that have merely become disenfranchised from the game in its highest levels. The bigger concern, however, is that those who drift away will simply find another way to pass their spare time, and this makes the blasé nature of responses from the game’s governing bodies to the implementation of this technology all the more baffling.
And I’m sick of it. And I think that you’re probably sick of it, too. Football loves to fill our brains with extraneous guff, but we’re now at the point at which it’s found a way to crowd the actual game out altogether. No-one in the grounds themselves understands what’s going on any more, and those watching on the television aren’t a great deal better off. Meanwhile, the laws of the game feel increasingly like a minefield of ways in which players standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, or otherwise punishing them for not being as millimetre perfect as the technology seems to believe they should be. And with football’s powers of self-reflection being effectively non-existent, nothing is going to change. The only question now is that of how long most of us will cling on for.