VAR is Another Slap in the Face for the Long-Suffering Paying Spectator

VAR is Another Slap in the Face for the Long-Suffering Paying Spectator

Tuesday, 6 March, 2018 - 09:00
VAR comes under criticism. (AFP)
London - Paul Wilson
As a pundit, Robbie Savage is not generally known for being incisive, but he was bang on the money with his condemnation of the latest VAR shambles. No one in the ground had a clue what was going on, was the gist of his Wembley assessment as Tottenham’s Cup tie against Rochdale was repeatedly interrupted.

That is the whole problem with VAR, and the reason a groundswell of terrace opinion is forming against its use in other leagues across Europe. While it might masquerade as progress, it is actually just another slap in the face for the paying spectator.

Those poor saps who insist on traveling to stadiums and forking out for overpriced tickets do so because they want to be part of the event, believing live football at its best is an unrepeatable experience based around a symbiotic relationship between action on the pitch and reaction in the crowd. It has always been this way. You can watch a game on television and see events unfold just as well, perhaps even better, but you don’t share the emotion with performers or fellow spectators in the same visceral way. Declaring: “I was there,” whether the memories are proud or painful, is always going to beat admitting you saw it in the pub or switched it on in your living room.

That VAR might be subtly undermining this essential dynamic is perhaps best illustrated by what happened at Huddersfield vs. Manchester United in the FA Cup a couple of weeks ago. Several reporters stationed themselves not in the press box, with an open air view of the game, but downstairs in a lounge, with an unrestricted view of a television.

That is to say, people who had traveled to cover a game chose to watch it indoors on TV, something they could have done at home. Their reasoning was simple. If VAR was in use it would probably end up being the story, it certainly had been at Liverpool in the previous round, and if VAR was the story you would get a much better idea of what was happening via television than you would from a seat in the stadium. In this instance their hunch paid off – they were the only people in a crowd of 24,000 who knew that the VAR decision to disallow Juan Mata’s goal had been compromised by shonky technology in the form of wobbly offside lines – but the inescapable and unpalatable corollary was that 24,000 people had paid good money to be kept in the dark.

It is more than a little insulting, when you have braved a winter’s day and bought a seat, that all you get is a referee with his finger in his ear and a group of players standing around looking mystified while the TV audience receives pictures and commentary. If this “improvement” is not for the benefit of those who attend the game then should it really count as an improvement at all? One prominent Liverpool supporter was so appalled by the dismal spectacle he let it be known that VAR was making such a mess of the game he would have preferred to see a fractionally illegal Manchester United goal stand.

These are early, experimental days, of course, and presumably VAR will get slicker, quicker and more reliable over time, though the thing to remember about experiments is that they can be ditched if they produce unsatisfactory results. The question is not whether football wishes to take the cricket and rugby route and have replays instantly available on giant screens, the question is whether football wishes the referee in charge of the game and the spectators who have turned up to watch to be at the mercy of someone following the action remotely.

Just because technology makes it possible does not automatically mean it is an advance that must be embraced. It is at least worth considering that referees might do a better job if they could go back to concentrating on play without being pestered by voices in their ear.

It ought not to be regarded as Luddite to suggest that control of a live game is best left to people on the pitch, even if they will occasionally make a mistake.

Now that goalline technology is up and running, a large proportion of the most contentious decisions are instantly cleared up anyway. All that is really needed after that is a method of establishing whether someone has cheated to score a goal, and in the case of a handball of the type Thierry Henry committed against the Republic of Ireland, where defenders are furiously appealing, the fourth official being allowed a peek at a touchline monitor would suffice.

VAR is a solution looking for a problem, which is possibly why it keeps being used wrongly. It might be better simply to accept that football can never be perfect than to adopt something that brings so many imperfections of its own.

The Guardian Sport

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