One of the most striking aspects of the rolling-out of video assistant referees in English football over the last week is the almost daily reminder of the powerfully collegiate nature of referees. Gathered in significant numbers the refereeing community will come on like a particularly strident all-male lobbying group, flaring their neck muscles, explaining their judgments in that strangely tetchy technical language, asserting their right to be respected and supported with an air of lingering threat, like Fathers For Justice in shorts. This is their time now. And they’re going to fiddle with their ear and look stern and pensive for just about as long as it takes.
The other striking thing about VAR only became clear to me on Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge as it was used for only the third time inside an English football stadium. The fact is, for all the expertise, the manpower, the money spent, VAR just doesn’t work in football. It diminishes the experience of watching in the stadium. It skews the game decisively one way. It is one of those ideas, like bendy buses, or communism, that would simply be better off abandoned.
This isn’t an opinion that will hold any water among those already bound up in the mini-industry of promoting, implementing, and generally waving through the latest digital intrusion. It is also a largely pointless opinion given football seems bent on sticking with VAR. But none of this prevents it from being the correct opinion.
Not only for the obvious reason, which is the basic paradox at the heart of the VAR system. Digital referee technology is only tolerable if it is used as sparingly as possible. This seems unarguable given the experiences in Australia and Germany. And yet such restraint is impossible in football, where the default atmosphere is one of unmetered confusion, where the outrage dial is always set at 11, where every straw is the last straw.
Refereeing decisions are not the real problem here. The real problem is the ludicrously disproportionate attention devoted to discussing refereeing decisions. The number of actual injustices, as opposed to disagreements, is minuscule next to this overwhelming fog of rage.
Let’s face it, people are the problem here. Like the block button on Twitter, like silent touchlines and anger management courses, VAR is just another attempt to cope with and soothe and manage their feelings of dis-empowerment and alienation. It is people’s rage that demands this, more than any meaningful search for objective truth. Just as the real answer here, as to so many things, is for everyone to calm down a bit.
So, you conclude warily: use it as little as possible. Save it for the howlers. At which point the question arises of why bother using it at all. The idea seems to be that VAR will correct or overturn two out of every hundred refereeing decisions.
And yet, long experience suggests this is an entirely fruitless search for absolute answers. This is not cricket, where TV replays can establish the definite truth of angles and nicks. More than any other sport football constantly presses itself up against the limits of its own laws, relying on continual judgment calls simply to function at all. There is no objective truth in football. Instead the idea is to play the game at the very edge of what is defined as football and what is defined as foul, an interpretation of various physical movements that depends on the application of a set of descriptive words. What amounts to a grey area is itself a grey area. The areas for debate are always up for debate.
It is in order to worry away at this inbuilt uncertainty that the entire experience is currently being diminished. At Stamford Bridge the time spent watching a middle-aged man stand very still looking sad while another middle-aged man watched television in a bunker brought a kind of dissolution. In those moments the air seemed to have been sucked out of the ground, a drowsy numbness falling across the crowd, an awareness of being subject suddenly to invisible outside influence. Whereas, for so long the whole point of the spectacle, the thing that has always marked it out, has been the chance to lose yourself in that communal experience, the joy of complete abandon that for so long was the essence of English football grounds.
In the end a lot of this boils down to what you think sport is for. If it is to be a distantly consumed third person spectacle, a series of colored blobs moving on a screen, just one part of the digital leisure experience, than perhaps it does make sense to analyze endlessly the precise, elusive mechanics of why a man has fallen over.
Another point of view is that football has drawn its strength and its fascination not from its precision, but from moments of ragged, oddly shaped, endlessly evasive beauty. In his American football novel End Zone, Don DeLillo describes sport as “a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible … tending always to move towards perfection”.
DeLillo is talking about a sport of precisely regulated phases and patterns. The beauty of football is that it carries something of this, but still evades categorization by pure mathematics, that it is strange and startling in its beauties; and for all the attempts to categorize, still essentially emotional in nature.
The Guardian Sport