An Unspoken Battle For Football’s Future
At least, we might reflect, last night’s match between Watford and Chelsea passed off relatively without incident, unless we’re talking about the defending champions’ supine surrender to a distinctly mediocre team that is currently battling against relegation from the Premier League. It increasingly frequently feels these days, however, as though no football match can pass by without some form of accompanying refereeing “controversy”, and the extent to which we’ve all become conspiracy theorists on this particular subject has gone into overdrive this season to such an extent that it is starting to feel, to me at least, that this is no longer the game that I grew up loving.
There has been a lot on this site over the last few weeks on the subject of Video Assistant Referees. It’s a subject that we’ve done to death a little because we do not feel that people fully understand the extent to which VARs will change the very nature of professional football. Over the last four or five decades or so, the game’s governing bodies have sought to streamline the laws of the game to accommodate adequate responses to cheating, the increasing pace of the game itself, and the football match as a spectacle for a paying audience. This is all very laudable, but this rush to control the game, to make every decision definitively correct, threatens to strangle it altogether.
For me at least, part of the joy of watching football is that the game carries an indubitably human element to it. Controlling a moving ball without using one’s hands is fiendishly difficult. As such, football has always been a game that has been dependent on human fallibility as much as just about anything else. Watching other sports has always felt to me like watching a production line of perfection, waiting for one party to make the mistake that will allow the other to win. Football, on the other hand, was different. This was a sport that was about the absolute inverse of this. It’s about finding diamonds in the rough, about moments of brilliance and beauty so sublime that it’s easy to believe that they came about by accident.
This extends to referees. The spirit of refereeing in football has always been in line with this idea of the game being principally governed by human fallibility. Referees make mistakes, but their word is final. It’s too facile to be useful to argue that “mistakes even themselves out over the course of a season”. For one thing, they don’t and for another some mistakes are considerably more costly than others, particularly in an era during which the entire industry is in thrall to billions of pounds in television contract money that are dependent on results on the pitch. This, however, doesn’t mean that the correct response to anyone complaining about refereeing decisions tht haven’t gone their team’s way should be “tough shit”, though.
Somewhere along the line, however, we seem to have decided to disregard the unspoken rule which acknowledges that no, life isn’t fair, and that yes, genuine people with good intentions can make mistakes. We now insist on correct decisions to be made all the time when the game is played at such a dizzying speed that it is effectively impossible to expect human beings to be able to keep up with it. And, having done that, we now blame the poor bastards charged with having to keep up with it all for not having superhuman powers of perception and sight. They added linesmen, and mistakes continued to be made. They added fourth officials, and mistakes continued to be made. They added goal-line officials, and mistakes continued to be made.
This time around, however, technology has the apparent answer and one can’t argue with the correctitude of technology now, can we? There are powerful bodies lobbying for VARs. Broadcasting companies who see the opportunity to position themselves at the very centre of the game. A media which sees the opportunity to reframe “controversy” and keep the clickbait churnalism world a-turning. The pundits, who see the possibility of employment opportunities from a culture of manfactured controversy and who have many things to say on the subject. There have been few ways in recent in years in which the gulf between who make their living from football and those who pay to consume it have been more starkly laid out before us.
We might, for example, look to the lengthy wait for decisions to be made as proof of this. The experience of match-going supporters – and, one might argue, television audiences – has been adversely affected by delays as referees squint at television screens attempting to ascertain whether a goal should be awarded or not. But it is in this moment that the difference can be most starkly seen. On the one hand, there are the supporters, whose enjoyment of the game is disrputed by this entire cavalcade. On the other, however, are the players on the pitch, the managers and the club owners, who may start to make or lose considerable amounts of money on the basis of which way the decisions eventually go.
But the experience of VARs in England hasn’t been one that has had a great deal to do with refereeing consistency, so far. Indeed, such has been the timbre of debate of every FA Cup match that has featured it that we could be forgiven for believing that the main purpose of VARs so far has been to replace one form of manufactured controversy with another. The noise concerning refereeing mistakes has become deafening of late. The recent match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, for example, was a dramatic, high tempo affair, exactly the sort of match that sells the Premier League around the world. Yet almost all of the post-match coverage centred around a couple of refereeing decisions.
It doesn’t help, of course, that a large number of supporters appear to be wholly embracing the notion of becoming conspiracy theorists. To add an extra layer of stupidity to the entire debate, many fans don’t even appear to be capable of understanding that sometimes the roll of the dice goes against you. In spite of massive attempts to make it so on the part of clubs, broadcasters and governing bodies, there remains more to the nature of football support than mere consumerism, but it’s difficult to resist the idea that we’re slowly swallowing the idea that football supporters are customers, and that the customer is always right. This is usually delivered in a witless bray, the voice of a sense of entitlement crossed with the apparent failure to understand the very nature of the game.
On top of this soup of anger, stupidity and conceit, the game’s governing bodies have also thrown in changes to the laws of the game which have made even such simple concepts as handball and offside matters which require degrees in psychology, philosophy and geometry in order to understand. Balancing being fair against the spectacle of the game is no easy task. Few would deny that. It does, however, feel as though the constant tinkering with the laws of the game do nothing apart from add to the feeling that an increasingly smaller number of people even understand what we’re watching. Supporters certainly don’t. That can be seen from the responses to just about any occasion upon which a referee blows his whistle, nowadays. But when it’s all active play, interfering with play and arms in unnatural positions, this is hardly surprising.
But there’s something more insiduous going on here. We could all make a list the length of our arms of the times that pundits have got their interpretations of the laws of the game flat out wrong. It’s frustrating, of course. I mean, these people are paid to understand this shit, aren’t they? It’s their job to. But they seem to be so seldomly pulled up on their frequent – and frequently obvious – mistakes that it might as well not happen at all. If Mark Lawrenson or Robbie Savage, for example, were held up to the standards to which pundits hold referees, it’s unlikely that either would be in work by the end of the season. But they serve their purpose. They cause controversy. It’s difficult to resist the temptation that none of these people are here to help us to understand the game or analyse what we’ve just seen and explain it in layman’s terms. They’re here to keep the wheels greased and turning. To keep the controversy mill ticking over. They’re job is, it increasingly feels, specifically not what we’re repeatedly told it is.
It’s a curious conflation, though. Changes to the laws of the game designed to make it fairer have made the very nature of refereeing more subjective. The old laws of the game might have been harsh – Ball hits your arm? Penalty. In an offside position? Offside. – but they were at least unambiguous. And these changes in the nature of the laws of the game have come in tandem with an increasing demand for every decision to be objectively “correct.” We’ve allowed the laws of the game to be made increasingly complex whilst simultaneously demanding that any element element of fallibility in governing those rules is rendered obsolete, all whilst watching games through an ever-increasing number of cameras, which can turn any refereeing decision into a hunt to find the most beneficial angle from which to frame our predetermined interpretations of them. We’re making refereeing impossible, and we’re then blaming referees for this state of affairs. It’s a striking irony.
VARs aren’t a panacea. They feel like nothing but an extra layer of manufactured controversy. The laws of the game need streamlining, of that there can be no doubt. The sub-clauses, asterisks and indices need to be removed from them, for sure. No small part of the reason for the game’s growth around the globe and enduring popularity has been its simplicity, but we seem to have decided that we prefer controversy over simplicity, these days. Although there are complaints about it, the white noise of dumb rage is louder than ever to such an extent that it’s difficult to believe that we don’t all secretly love it, really. And that the wrong solutions to problems that didn’t exist to anything like the extent to which we were allowed to believe they did would lead us down a cul-de-sac of unintended consequences shouldn’t come as any surprise to any of us.
Professional football is in one of its sporadic but regular phases of tumult. The only question that remains is what it will look like once it emerges from this, and whether there will be any lingering appeal for those of us who don’t much like screaming into echo chambers and otherwise becoming incandescent over over matters that shouldn’t, in the overall scheme of things, really even matter that much to us in the first place. This isn’t a matter of being a “dinosaur”, pining for a golden age which never really existed in the first place. This is a question of the very nature of the game itself, and of building a better future for it than its present is right now. And at the moment, it feels as though we’re sleepwalking off a cliff under the direction of people who profit from our very rage itself.