In a sport that has become increasingly digital, the relative lack of technology used while actually playing football is quite surprising. The vast majority of technological developments — interactive advertising boards, scoreboards with social media campaigns, in-play betting — mirror football’s monetary obsession, without actually getting any mud on the metaphorical studs.
A rare disruption to this has come in the form of goal-line technology, which has trail-blazed the way for a more complete option in video-assistant refereeing (VAR). Officials are highly skilled and well trained, but only human. They make countless mistakes at crucial moments of huge games, which can leave cultural aftershocks that shape the fabric of the sport. Every football fan, for example, knows about Maradona’s infamous Hand of God moment.
But with VAR, referees can, at any point, refer to slow-motion video replays of dubious incidents, with a team of assistants able to quickly perform in-the-moment analysis and relay information to the ref. As a tool that veteran official Andre Marriner suggests referees have been “crying out for”, surely a second pair of better-placed eyes would universally be considered a relief?
But, as with all new technology, VAR has immediately found critics within its targeted market, in the form of multiple Premier League winners. Ex-Manchester United midfielder Paul Ince has suggested that inaccuracy is a part of the game that we should embrace — that “getting decisions right takes the emotion out of the game.” Heartache, England fans will be no doubt relieved to hear, is part of why we like football so much.
Others are more concerned with the implementation of the technology thus far. Lee Dixon labelled the technology “a shambles” after the referee failed to send off Gonzalo Jara for a vicious elbow on Timo Werner in the Confederations Cup this year. Even FIFA’s head referee, Massimo Busacca, has acknowledged that “many aspects should be improved… to implement more, to be at the level we need, we need time.”
The interesting thing about these two arguments is that, in some ways, they actually negate each other. Ince is right in identifying emotional catharsis or unjust grief as pivotal to why we find football so entertaining, but as Dixon points out, VAR’s implementation at present doesn’t actually guarantee perfect decisions anyway. There is actually an argument that, if a referee has time to review the footage and still gets the decision ‘wrong’, then the injustices that Ince appears to value are still going to happen, and might actually be more intense, given the incredulity of fans to believe the decision.
Alternatively, if VAR manages to get to a point where it can intervene perfectly, then Dixon’s argument would be rendered obsolete. A perfect VAR system would be able to aggrieve a set of fans, as Ince suggests is so valuable, by contributing to the correct reversal of a decision. All that VAR does is give those in the middle far more accessible material to work with to make these decisions.
As such, the critics of VAR do appear unconvincing in their division, as some points of argument appear to negate others coming from the same camp. Whichever camp critics fall into, considering how early we are in the lifespan of this technology, it makes little sense to condemn it totally when there is such potential value in being able to deliver justice at a crucial moment.