For quite a while, I’ve been coughing quite regularly. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s a sarcastic cough. These days, it’s brought on automatically any time I see or hear the mention of VAR. The system that was sold to football fans as the answer to resolving all footballing controversies. Who can forget how we were told that VAR would put an end to all disagreements, that all incidents would be perfectly adjudicated in an instant, or just a few seconds at worst, because somebody could quickly flick back a tape recording onto a screen and - hey presto! - an immediate perfect decision.
Whilst many football fans tried to point out some of the potential issues, FIFA, UEFA, various football associations and, this season, the Premier League have ignored loyal supporters and ploughed ahead with implementing VAR. And guess what? The controversies haven’t gone away - we’ve simply swapped some of the old ones for new ones. Of course, all those who made such a song and dance about introducing VAR are now trying to walk most of their arguments back, even pretending they never said it was going to be perfect, although most football supporters have got a slightly longer memory than the average goldfish.
The attraction of football was always that apart from a natural ebb and flow, it was such a simple game to watch, understand and get passionate about. For the football supporter inside the ground, whether right or wrong, any incident was instantly deciphered in their mind the moment it happened. It was also a relatively straightforward game to referee, although not without its controversies.
Rather like humans, football’s imperfections were also often its beauty, creating interest and talking points; emotions and passions were stirred and every supporter felt they knew what they were talking about. But in the last 20 years or so in particular, along with the massive impact of television and money, there have been all kinds of rule changes which have changed the game. Coupled with the speed and skill of the players, they have made instant decision-making for referees and linesmen much more difficult, and for supporters inside the ground. Instead of reversing some of these rule changes, particularly relating to offside, and using video retrospectively to improve the game where possible, and punish players where necessary, the authorities have continued to plough on - and eventually introduced VAR as a way to achieving what, in their minds, are ‘instantly perfect decisions’.
As a result, watching various Premier League and Champions League games with VAR has often been nothing short of painful - and on far too many occasions, laughable. As football supporters, there is a certain perverse joy in watching the football establishment making such a mess of things, and those clubs with power and money in the game still bemoaning decisions, despite them all suggesting the introduction of their beloved electronic gadgets in the first place. But it’s also sad for us, watching the game that we love being destroyed at the highest level. I don’t know if the football authorities will reverse all this, or whether you can put the VAR genie back in the bottle, but it is worth pointing out a few facts.
Firstly, to the argument that VAR is new and they are ironing out a few issues. VAR has actually been in existence since 2010 and the system currently in operation is the result of around 10 years of development. Secondly, that all decisions would be cleared up, and be fair. Perfect! Once and for all. The reality is that football is and always has been an imperfect game. The same football hierarchy, TV stations, pundits and journalists who advocated all this have now also discovered the word ‘subjective’ as the penny finally drops that several decisions in football cannot be perfect, as they are a matter of interpretation. How difficult was it to foresee that?
In some cases, there is no accounting for a referee’s ego. There have already been incidents where penalties have been awarded, in which a player has cheated and no contact has been made with the forward, yet despite the referee going to the halfway line and checking the screens, and seeing what everybody else can see, he has refused to change his decision. In other cases, referees have ended up being none the wiser. When Fernando Llorente scored a vital equaliser from a corner for Spurs against Manchester City in last year’s Champions League quarter-final, it was flagged to the Turkish referee that Llorente may have handled it. The referee stood at the halfway line watching countless replays from different camera angles for three minutes, getting increasingly agitated along with the crowd, before - in an act of resignation - he threw his arms up in the air and allowed the goal to stand because he could not tell whether the ball had brushed his arm, let alone if it was deliberate.
Perhaps it was that incident that made the authorities change the handball rule this year, so that if a ball touches a player’s arm in some part of scoring a goal, it is disallowed. So recently, what appeared to be a perfectly good last-minute equaliser scored by West Ham was disallowed because, as a West Ham player (Rice) burst through to set up the goal, a Sheffield United defender had managed to head the ball onto his arm from next to zero distance trying to stop him, resulting in the goal being disallowed on VAR review. You seriously have to wonder if the people responsible for changing the rules have even played a game of football in a local park, let alone competitively.
Lastly, the argument that VAR is 100 per cent accurate. It is not 100 per cent accurate. After VAR was introduced to the Premier League at the start of the season, several goals were disallowed for offside for what appeared to be stupid reasons and the most marginal of infringements, like somebody’s heel, big toe, elbow or shoelaces were in an offside position. Now you would assume if they are making decisions based on a couple of millimetres or centimetres, that the equipment is accurate to that level. But a few weeks after the season started there were a couple of reports about VAR’s lack of accuracy. Manchester City, furious that a Raheem Sterling goal had been disallowed, worked out that the distance travelled by Raheem Sterling between each frame of film was around 20 cm (8 inches), so to be called offside for a couple of centimetres was clearly within a margin of error for the equipment. Even the police normally allow for a 10 per cent margin of error for speeding, just in case a car speedometer is faulty, but the football authorities daren’t admit that their equipment and decisions are anything less than sacrosanct. It would make a mockery of the system they have been responsible for implementing and how they apply it.
If you haven’t heard much about this and other reports on VAR inaccuracy, then that’s a question you should be aiming at TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and pundits. The conspiracy of silence is deafening. And we haven’t even talked about the numerous and lengthy stoppages for almost every goal and other VAR incidents, curtailing the flow and sucking the oxygen out of the game. Whilst those watching on TV are kept occupied by endless replays (accompanied on some stations by sponsors logos... well, why not monetise it?) the supporter in the stadium, who is the lifeblood of the game, is left hanging around waiting for an announcement. We know the authorities don’t take into account the views and feelings of real supporters, much less take notice of anything we write. So I think all supporters should join me and start coughing if we are ever subjected to the use of VAR. We can do this, comfortable in the knowledge that nobody attending from the football authorities will know why we are coughing. They are certain to ask what’s going on, and at that point they should be told that it is now traditional to start coughing when VAR is in operation, and that they must join in. In other words, they should be told to VAR cough.
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