VAR was sold to us on a false prospectus but it is only getting worse. Some of these decisions simply make no sense and no amount of Howard Webb will fix it.
At the start of every top-flight game in England and Scotland, the good ship VAR sails into port like a disease-ridden barge, not fit for purpose, masquerading as the solution to a problem.
Remember what we were told. VAR was only going to correct glaring errors. The sort of errors that almost never happened, were annoying when they did, but which most of us accepted as part of the vicissitudes of sport and life more widely.
It was never supposed to add an extra layer of subjectivity to the game, but of course, that’s precisely what has happened. The referee makes a subjective decision which is then subjected to another subjective decision in Stockley Park, who then sends the referee to the screen like a naughty boy. Review what you’ve done, son. And it’s no surprise that decision doesn’t survive. Referees have no autonomy that matters any more.
Mistakes used to be made by referees; mistakes are made by the VAR. Are we any further forward? No, we are worse off, to the extent that listening to the Arsenal v Manchester United game on the radio, one Arsenal fan, on the United goal being chalked off by the VAR, screamed “that’s it, I’m done with VAR” and stormed out. Although the decision to rule it offside went in his club’s favour, the whole process had apparently ruined football for him, pulling him emotionally from pillar to post. First you think you’ve conceded, then a few minutes later, it turns out you haven’t.
Alejandro Garnacho had his goal ruled out
The football experience has been denatured. Artificial has replaced organic. That fan was sick of how it made him feel. It didn’t matter that his team had benefited because his experience was being broken.
The new reality is that no-one knows if a goal is a goal when the ball hits the net. No-one. The argument that you get the second wave of emotion when it passes the VAR test is phoney. The groan of relief when the execution squad doesn’t shoot you in the head should not be mistaken for love.
Every week there are inexplicable decisions. We saw one at the Etihad which went against Fulham which was so unfair, so unjust, it seemed to derail their performance. It’s one thing to suffer a bad decision – it happens – but it’s an entirely different sort of pain when you suffer it when there are people in place to scrutinise the mistake, telling you that they will fix glaring errors. Even Erling Haaland admitted he’d be fuming after Manuel Akanji leaped over the ball from an offside position and was obviously in goalkeeper Bernd Leno’s line of vision.
At the Emirates, the decision to give Arsenal a penalty could in no way have been construed by the VAR to be ‘a clear and obvious error’. To rule it out as though it was a clear and obvious error made zero sense and contradicted their own justification for the system.
Even the decisions the VAR gets ‘right’ are too often merely marginal offsides, such as the one that cancelled out Alejandro Garnacho’s goal, things impossible to see with the human eye and are so fine they don’t give the attacker any advantage. The offside rule only exists to prevent such an advantage. This means we are ruling out goals as offside in situations which the offside rule was not invented to rule upon. Clever.
In the Rangers v Celtic game, the home side had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out by VAR after initially being given by the referee. Again, it was not a clear and obvious error to allow the goal, it was a typical marginal decision which you could argue either way and not something that VAR should have been getting involved in. Indeed, it was something that was said it wouldn’t be involved in. This isn’t sustainable when you apply the logic that VAR itself wanted us to apply to it.
Worse yet Howard Webb has been brought in to make all of the VAR controversy go away, to make it clear when VAR will make a ruling and when it won’t. How’s that working, then, H? The level of discontent at decisions is as high or higher than it was pre-VAR. You’ve had to rework some laws just so VAR can rule on them. In other words you are redrawing football to work with your technology to justify the technology’s existence. Is it any wonder a majority of fans hate it? But given the amount of content it provides TV with, is it any wonder it exists?
And the result of all of this tinkering is what? Is anyone any happier about anything? No. If anything, people get more angry more quickly because they’ve been sold VAR on a false prospectus. We were told it’d correct errors, but it doesn’t. It finds errors that no-one can even see, has redefined what a refereeing mistake actually is and makes decisions on rules that were never meant to be ruled upon in such marginal ways.
Throw-ins, fouls and free-kicks are erroneously awarded all over the pitch and fans don’t understand why VAR hasn’t intervened. What’s the point of having a mistake-fixing system in place if it doesn’t fix all the mistakes? If the answer is ‘because it’s disruptive and annoying’ then, yes, it really bloody is. Take a telling.
Of course VAR’s remit isn’t to fix those errors, it’s there to fix a narrow parameter of glaring errors. We understand that. But that’s too often not what it does, as Fulham fans will tell you. And it makes no sense to fans and viewers. If you have introduced a judge and jury to rule on this particular football reality, why can’t it rule on everything? If the VAR knows that the throw-in on the halfway line that went to the player that crossed the ball for the header into the net was wrongly awarded, why can’t it blow the whistle on that, but it can spend four minutes looking for an offside knee?
I know VAR is here to stay, primarily because backing down on it is a humiliation too far for those who clutched it so tightly to their breast. But let us not shy away from the greater truths. VAR has stained the experience of football. That’s not an opinion, that’s just counting.
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