While we wait for VAR to come good, let's decide what we REALLY want from our football
Football has been waiting for VAR for a very, very long time.
I sat through hours of debate over the topics in press conferences during my time at Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger argued with his usual mix of passion and logic that the importance of the game, the amount of money dependent on results and advances in technology meant that a viable solution had to be created.
As usual, his reasoning was sound. Given careers were increasingly precarious and dependent on key games, which, in turn, were dependent on key decisions, it seemed morally wrong not to take the leap.
In contrast, FIFA’s holding position, that the game should be refereed in the same way at all levels and in all countries, seemed flimsy.
After all, this was elite football - the Champions League and the Premier League. If to err is human then, frankly, it just wasn’t good enough.
However, in the debate surrounding VAR’s introduction in the Premier League, it has been revealed that the human side of sport is the part that really matters.
A supporter’s life is a series of moments. They traipse up and down the country at hours determined by television companies using a transport system barely fit for purpose. The commitment of time and money is unnecessarily high. It is only “the moment”, its meaning and the ability to forever say “I was there” that can justify the cost.
The problem is that VAR protracts the moment and subdues the emotion. By now we have all endured an off-the-seat, hug-the-nearest-stranger instant that we have had to immediately wipe from our memory banks after the big screen apologetically flashes “no goal”.
This is about timing, not technology. An offside flag or the buzzer that alerts a referee that the ball has crossed the line is almost immediate. A millisecond of doubt, a glance at the officials, this does not take away from ‘the moment’. Perversely, peering towards the byline and expecting a prohibitive red or yellow signal, only to see the officials point towards the centre spot actually adds an extra frisson and a second, almost immediate, wave of emotion.
There are lengthy delays for VAR in tennis and cricket, of course, but the amount of intrusion is limited by challenges. When replays do come into play they are cheered as another part of the occasion. They are orchestrated to be annex of the drama and, of course, these are more stop-start spectator sports anyway.
So, while I am no fan of VAR, the debate about its introduction into Premier League football is welcome because it has uncovered an important truth of sport. The emotion of the moment is paramount.
Unarguably, VAR delivers better decisions and, as it improves, it will only create a bigger distance from the imperfection of relying on a human being. The “clear and obvious error” debate is facile as it merely becomes an area more grey than the one we were trying to navigate through in the first place.
In the end, if a striker’s toenail is beyond the last defender then he is offside. That is the law of the game. The benefit of the doubt or the human aspect of refereeing, cannot exist alongside VAR. And, it turns out, we actually quite like that.
Checking decisions to that level of accuracy can only be delivered by ruining those “moments”. So fans have voiced their opposition, which by definition means they would rather be able to explode with emotion at an imperfect decision than endure a protracted celebration of a perfect one.
Media coverage, as created by fans’ ravenous appetite for football, has helped create this situation of course. I was amused to see one journalist snapback at a talk show host’s complaints about VAR by arguing his hyperbole at poor decisions had ramped up the problem.
That may be too simplistic but it is clear that, while the overt violence of top-flight UK football in the 1970s and 80s has largely passed, the anger and vitriol between many fans remains worryingly high. Remember controversial incidents are not played on big screens at Premier League games for fear of unrest in the stands.
So where does this leave us?
Undoubtedly VAR is here to stay in some form, its the implementation and scope that is key. For me, the first MLS version was the worst, the Premier League/Champions League version not great while the FIFA/World Cup version is the best of this bad bunch.
The reaction in England should reveal to those that run the game what really matters to fans. The Premier League has been seen as an unstoppable money-making juggernaut since it began, combining high rights fees, high ticket prices, the best players and a growing global audience.
But cracks are starting to show in the rights market and the failure to land a CEO suggests the future is not as bright as the immediate past.
The average age of a Premier League fan has jumped significantly in the last 25 years. The product has been premium but so is the price.
Adding VAR makes perfect sense for those who work and play in the game.
It just turns out that those who pay the wages through their television eyeballs, replica shirt purchases and ticket buying, consider it a dampening of their emotional entertainment.
It is a clash between logic and emotion, science v art, Spock v Kirk, Holmes v Watson.
But, for the future of the sport, I am glad for the revelation.
So sing it loud and proud lads.
While the language is coarse, the message is clear.
* My only proviso here are the inevitable ‘Hail Mary’ challenges on match point or for the final wicket. They ruin the ultimate moment of victory.