“It’s Fenwick! It’s Fenwick,” screams Barry Davies. “England have won the World Cup. The West Germans are on their knees. Unbelievable! The World Cup is coming home!”
We all know the commentary. We’ve all signed the petitions to get Terry Fenwick a knighthood. Even he is bored of telling the story about being in the right place at the right time. But he knows that without Gary Lineker’s header coming back off the post into his path in injury time at Mexico 86, his life would be completely different. He certainly wouldn’t have appeared in as many Carlsberg adverts. All those children named after him the following year – Terry Vardy, Terry Noble – some of them became footballers themselves.
The parallel universe had VAR always existed is a relentless and unending sliding door. There’s no England victory in 1966. Geoff Hurst is a footnote in history – goalline technology did for him. Diego Maradona is the nearly man of Argentinian football. Booked for handball in the 1986 quarter-final and sent off for dissent shortly afterwards. He never scores that goal. He never lifts the trophy.
Baddiel and Skinner never have a hit. Ten years of hurt just isn’t enough. But it doesn’t matter because Spain beat us 1-0 in the quarter-final when their offside goal is overturned in 1996. We no longer agonize over Gazza’s studs, Gareth Southgate doesn’t even get to take a penalty. As a result he doesn’t have the expertise to guide us through the shootout in Russia last year – Kieran Trippier and Marcus Rashford skying their penalties over Chris Waddle style. Although Waddle didn’t miss in 1990 – England weren’t there after Lineker got his only ever yellow card, for diving in the box against Cameroon in the quarters.
There is some suspicion that VAR was unofficially used for the first time in the 2006 World Cup final. Certainly the referee and his on-field assistants missed Zinedine Zidane piling into Marco Materazzi’s chest. Perhaps a full-on headbutt – with a run-up – is the line the Premier League is currently using to define “clear and obvious”. Right now it appears you have to be on one side or the other of this debate and get increasingly dogmatic with every overturned or ignored decision.
I have found it entertaining, for instance when Portugal were given a penalty only for Switzerland to get one when they checked back during the Nations League semi-final. It has given me enormous and unexpected relief – twice for Spurs at the Etihad in recent months. And at the same time it’s been decidedly unsatisfactory – all those handballs in the Champions League and Women’s World Cup, and the agonizing offsides, especially when they go against you.
Aside from the refs bunker in Stockley Park there can’t be many who think VAR is working perfectly. I’m unsure how broadcasters and journalists should deal with it. Constantly discussing the VAR moment as the game-changer is tedious – a misplaced tackle or glorious pass is equally important – yet they’ve always happened, VAR hasn’t. Chances are our obsession with it will fade as it becomes less novel.
Scientists (people on Twitter) have proved that it cannot be proved that Son Heung- min was offside in the buildup to Serge Aurier’s goal at Leicester last weekend. Besides saving many of us an unhealthy amount of time staring at Jonny Evans and Son’s shoulders this week, it could have saved Mauricio Pochettino his latest crisis.
There’s no point in suggesting we go back to the pre-VAR days. It isn’t going away. Fans at stadiums can see replays on their phones within a minute. But it clearly needs improving and speeding up, while the International Football Association Board works out how to update the laws to keep up with technology.
Offside is weighted too far in favor of the defender. If we change it to daylight – a law that has never existed – does that tip the balance too far? How about if any part of your front foot is onside, you are onside? If your head/shoulder/chest is ahead of play, so be it. It’s not too much of an advantage. And offside diving headers will not be a problem. No one has ever been airborne before the cross was played and still been mid-air when they headed the ball; not even Keith Houchen.
Does this penalize people with small feet? Will people add flappy spurs to their boots to extend the heel? Does it end really tight calls? Not really, but it’s a middle ground. Raheem Sterling would be onside against West Ham this season, Son is onside against Leicester – but Sergio Agüero still off against Spurs in the Champions League last season and Mason Mount is still off against Liverpool last Sunday.
VAR takes too much time – what about a countdown clock after a goal is scored? What about THE Countdown clock? That would be exciting. if VAR can’t work it out in that time, then it’s not clear and obvious. Dur-Dur-Dur, Dur-Dur-Dur Ba-Da, Ba-Da, DaDaDaDa. GOAL!
Or there could be manager challenges – much as in cricket. Two per game. The problem here is that scoring a goal is so important and so comparatively rare that every manager would want to challenge every goal they conceded.
The purity of the goal celebration is the one unsolvable issue. It does seem to work in cricket. Stuart Broad gets an LBW, it’s given, he celebrates, it’s reviewed, he celebrates again or goes back to his mark and gets on with it. But is it comparable? A wicket is (usually) less important than a goal.
Perhaps we just have to accept it is different. It is a different joy. A joy with jeopardy. An extended version of checking the assistant’s flag before really celebrating.
It’s only now that I check the greatest and simplest outpouring of emotion by a footballer: Marco Tardelli in the 1982 World Cup final. That perfect half-volley from 18 yards to put Italy 2-0 up. The sprint. The rocking of the head as the beads of sweat pour from his face. The mouth contorted with unmitigated joy. The fists clenched. The arms pumping up and down.
Regretfully the Italian sweeper Gaetano Scirea – who had broken up a West German attack before bringing the ball forward – appears to be offside once if not twice in the buildup.
The thought of Tardelli running off in the distance – before waiting and waiting and waiting only to be called back for offside is too much. What a relief that neither the technology nor Countdown existed when he larruped that one into the bottom corner.