Why VAR in soccer is a disaster (and so is goal-line technology)
Every time I think of technology in sport my mind wanders to the London Jets, a fictional zero-gravity sports team followed by space-traveling layabout Dave Lister in the classic sci-fi series Red Dwarf. As far as I can recall they were basically some sort of robotic, flying soccer side. Even as a pre-teen, it sounded pretty crap.
Now the only joy I get from tech in soccer is the moment a ball either clearly has or hasn’t crossed the goal-line, but the Powers That Be have decided we must view a replay anyway, and the commentator offers something tired and truculent like, “Ok, ok we get it, let’s move on.”
It’s a human reaction to an unnecessarily automated moment. It epitomizes why I think tech should be kept out of football as much as possible — especially when it comes to the video assistant referee (VAR), a concept that so obviously has its roots in a strip-lit conference room, and which has proved a disaster since its inception into the game.
There have been countless VAR screw-ups in the German Bundesliga since it debuted recently. Last week a video assistant was demoted after allegations he manipulated video to hamper Wolfsburg in a match against Schalke, whom he supports. The tech really is only as good as the user, I guess.
But atmosphere-killing pauses and bad decisions notwithstanding, there are other, more fundamental reasons to oppose technology in soccer (I can picture the “luddite” comments already, so bear with me).
There is more than one reason soccer is called ‘The Beautiful Game’. One is that the game you or I can play on a cold, Sunday morning at a municipal park, is essentially the same game Leo Messi plays at the Camp Nou.
There is grass, some whitewash, a couple of goals, a referee and (if you’re lucky) a couple of linesmen. The game is fast-flowing and, compared to other sports, unstructured. It is, in a way, anarchic.
This is beautiful because it happens so little. Our most popular musicians are increasingly anodyne and aloof. (with some notable exceptions) Politicians and businesspeople keep their wealth on Caribbean islands and don’t bother speaking to the media.
Neither do most footballers — at least, not with much alacrity. That is our fault too. But at least the game itself — a kernel of competition buried among the underwear lines, slavery and global mafiadom— has stayed pretty much intact since its rules were formalized in 1863.
This is what’s at stake with VAR. It is only a matter of time before video decision breaks are leveraged into commercialized timeouts, tactical breaks and sponsored moments. One only needs watch the crass, hypercapitalist orgy of the NFL to see that played out in its technicolor madness.
Yesterday tiny Northern Ireland failed to qualify for the World Cup next year in Russia, thanks in part to a staggeringly bad decision by referee Ovidiu Hategan. Video assistance would have absolved his error in moments. It would also have robbed us of a talking point, a slew of memes and funny comments and, more importantly, human error.
I’m no luddite. I welcome technology that makes life easier, smoother and healthier. Years ago I could have farted this opinion onto a piece of paper and pitched an editor, who most likely would have said no. Now I can share it with the world in a millisecond (joy!).
But sport — particularly football — should be left alone. It is a human endeavor to be played by flawed people, and officiated by them too. It means everything for 90 minutes, then nothing after. It is catharsis. And VAR takes a little slice of that imperfection away. Flying soccer sounds great. Grass stains are probably far better.