It is remarkable how quickly public sentiment can change in the era of social media, but the fall from grace of VAR within the space of 90 minutes is nonetheless remarkable. However, the failure of technology to grant Willian a penalty in Chelsea’s FA Cup replay against Norwich sparked a backlash that, whilst understandable, misses the key issue surrounding video referees in football. There were always going to be controversies, but if VAR is to be fully employed these will undoubtedly be ironed out in due course. The issue that should be discussed is not the effectiveness of video referees, but the fact that they are the antithesis of everything enjoyable in the game, a tangible representation of the increasing sterility that football increasingly seems to be embracing.
Imagine the VAR utopia. Controversy a thing of the past. Every decision perfect. Mike Dean? Never heard of him. The fans, at last, able to watch with the peace of mind that justice will be done. Only, that is not why fans watch football. Fans love the game despite its flaws, and prioritise enjoyment over correct refereeing decisions. It is important not to misunderstand this argument, as I am sure all fans wish that every refereeing decision was correct, but to implement this at the expense of celebration or drama is wrong. It was evident at the King Power, although Kelechi Iheanacho’s offside was overturned, little more than a murmur came from the onlooking crowd. Albeit Fleetwood Town may not be the most glamourous of opposition, it demonstrated the key problem of technology. When a goal is scored, the brief moment of unadulterated emotion and celebration, incomparable to any other sport, is lost when VAR is used. Instead, fans are forced to wait for minutes, unaware of what the decision will be, resulting in valid goals that are rewarded with emotionless cheers. Many point to the successes of video assistants in other sports, but this is a futile comparison, as no other sport shares the speed at which football is played, the tribalism of support, and the relative importance of goal scoring. As one of few sports where 0-0 is a common result, goals are much rarer to football than tries are to rugby, or wickets are to cricket, meaning in the vast majority of cases, the joy at a goal scored will be vastly higher than emotions in comparable sports. Fans in Serie A have been left waiting for up to five minutes to see whether goals stand, whereas its use in the Dutch Super Cup, in which a Feyenoord goal was ruled out to grant Vitesse a penalty for an incident half a minute earlier, was farcical. 47% of players surveyed in the Bundesliga stated they wanted VAR abolished. When players and fans alike do not know whether to celebrate a goal, the game being played is no longer football, but a pale imitation of the beautiful game. In the search for justice, football is on the brink of going too far.
This debate is one that cannot merely be left to the pundits. Robbie Savage could cite John Rawls on live TV and would still give no more insight than any single true fan could provide. Having played the game, pundits provide incomparable insight into top level performance, but will not have the same insight as to how it is to watch the game purely as a fan. Top level support can only be expressed by fans, and yet fans appear to have little say as to the future of VAR. Football is the most popular sport in the country, the most popular sport in the world, and that is not by chance. For all the criticisms of poor referees, of time wasting, of gamesmanship, they are part of the game that is cherished by millions. VAR is in many ways the tip of the iceberg in terms of reforms that are being proposed. Those looking to adjust the lengths of games to prevent time wasting do not appreciate the true art form it has become, allowing weaker sides to compete on a level with teams of vast financial superiority. Sin bins would further undermine physicality and the art of tackling in the game, as it would allow marginal decisions to be punished too easily.
The ultimate question must be considered, what is the point in football? If it is to ensure the better team wins, regardless of how monotonous or sterile the game is, then perhaps there is a place for technology in the game. If it is to entertain, to excite, to incite passion unlike any other experience in the world, then VAR, however well-intentioned, should be placed on the scrap heap. Come back Mike, all is forgiven.