When VAR & Handball Collide
The empty stands with flags draped across them, as though empty seats are modern football’s equivalent to nudity. The piped crowd sound, which cannot swell and rise with the precision of a live crowd reacting as it happens, sounds like a ghostly reminder of the past. Matches being shoved through at a dizzying speed, as though everybody is aware of something imminently apocalyptic and we’re all just trying to cram as much of what’s left of the game in as possible before the End Times.
Of course, what’s happening at the moment regarding Covid-19 might be considered a force majeure, but what’s happening on the pitch at the moment is entirely self-inflicted. The current interpretations of the offside and handball rules have run head-first into each other, and the results have made for grim watching. None are fit for purpose in and of themselves. The current interpretation of offside has quietly reversed one of the fundamental aims of rule changes throughout the entire history of the game, that attacking football should be encouraged. Offside is now micro-managed, and it’s being carried out to a degree that human eye will struggle to discern, to the nearest millimetre.
And it could almost feel as though the handball rule has been changed in order to compensate for this shift in favour of defenders by cramming the game full of penalty kicks. Certainly, the current interpretation of handball is absurd. We are headed towards any ball striking the arm of a player being deemed handball – although the governing bodies haven’t even had the courage of their convictions to do that yet; instead it’s peppered with layers of what reads very much like marketing speak such as the much-maligned making one’s body “unnaturally bigger” or whatever the hell their “shoulder level” is (there’s a diagram, but still.)
VAR, of course, is VAR. The main problem with it, of course, is that it still requires human intervention, and human intervention infuses it with human stupidity. That the full abolition of refereeing doesn’t seem to be upon us hints at this, but we’re still routinely subjected to two or three minute waits while everybody pauses and rewinds the same incident seventeen times. There will be a time in the future when people will look back upon this age and laugh at the game about this, in the same way that we sometimes laugh at grainy film of Edwardian players wearing caps and knickerbockers.
But when VAR and the current interpretations of the laws of the game collide, the flaws of both are magnified and game itself just ends up looking pretty ridiculous as a result. If handball is to be given every time the ball strikes a player’s arm, then that should be the rule. Accidental, schmaccidental. I happen to think this would be a stupid rule, it but at least would be clear. It feels like the current interpretation of handball is halfway house which doesn’t really satisfy anybody.
And what’s even more troubling is the idea that getting refereeing decisions right to the letter of the law rather than its spirit is now considered so important that the aesthetics of the game are considered worth trashing in order to pursue. For 140-odd years, we accepted a degree of fallibility on the part of those refereeing and running the line. Sometimes decisions would go in your favour, sometimes they wouldn’t. And it sucked if something egregious that went against your team was missed, but you kind of had to just get on with it and hope that things would even themselves out over time. It wasn’t perfect, but it lasted almost a century and a half.
Somewhere along the line, though, football decided that it was too important for this. What passes for its soul has been so perverted that it’s not only getting refereeing decisions right that matters, but getting them right in the right way, with no room for grey area, no room for interpretation, and no room for nuance. And this poison has trickled right the way through the game, from online conspiracy theorists convinced that this referee is biased against their team to parents screaming blue murder at volunteers at kids matches on Sunday mornings. If the referee’s position on the football pitch is starting to feel untenable, then the entire culture of the game is to blame.
And then of course, there’s that old contradiction between wanting ‘consistency’ and ‘common sense’, as though those two things are mere pipe-dreams of which only the most hopelessly optimistic will ever dream. One would think that it if common sense is common enough, then it would be inherently consistent as well. We all know what the problem with this is, of course. Common sense can only have a chance of working in an environment in which everybody is acting in good faith, and virtually nobody within the game – not players who appeal for everything, not managers who claim not to have seen things that happened right in front of them, and certainly not swivel-eyed social media fanatics who’ll stump for a sex offender, so long as he’s their sex offender – ever, ever is.
Perhaps this is how we came to be at this point. Perhaps those who make the rules have given up appealing to anybody’s better instincts, secure in the knowledge that we don’t have any more. Perhaps they thought, ‘There’s no way we’e going to be able to get everybody to agree that mistakes can be made, so perhaps, bearing in mind the amount of money at stake, we have to go ruthlessly for correctitude instead.’ A big problem that the game at the top level might have to deal with, though, is that their product has to be at its peak in these empty stadia if people are going to spend large amounts of money on season tickets when things do finally start to get back to whatever normal might look like in a year or two’s time. And it absolutely isn’t at it’s peak at the moment. Not unless you include peak Spurs, that is.