Will VAR be another beloved wrinkle in football?

Date published: Monday 10th July 2017 12:00

With complex systems, it’s often the case that what you currently have is not what you’d come up with if you sat down and worked things out from scratch. Obviously, that’s because over time things emerge that nobody would have foreseen, or happen by accident, or are decided on the hoof by idiots. And it’s rare that you get the opportunity to go back to a blank slate.

Sometimes the issue is physical: you can’t just knock down all of the UK’s railway bridges and tunnels and rebuild them to suit modern trains overnight, and Britain can’t just switch to driving on the right to gain access to more cheaply manufactured vehicles.

More often, though, it’s a kind of social inertia at play. Basically, it’s just too complicated to try and change everyone over to a new way of doing things; so we’re left using outdated paper money to tip waiters to make up for their being underpaid.

Often, the biggest obstacle is that people are just too attached to the old way of doing things. There are still people who would rather queue 15 minutes to speak to a bank teller than use online banking or even a cash machine. That’s not fear of technology – cash machines have been widespread for about 40 years now – but simply that the older, more inefficient way of doing things is embedded in people’s routines.

That is not to have a go at anyone. My general attitude is that we shouldn’t be beholden to history for the sake of it, and that progress inherently involves an element of risk. Yet we must also recognise that for many millions of people, there is too much emotional investment to just rip it up and start again.

That’s exactly why we have a disconnect whenever a club builds a new stadium. The new ground could be objectively better in every way – acoustics, sight lines, service speed, personal space, toilet queuing time, distance to pitch – but there will still always be a sizeable band of people complaining about how soulless the new place feels.

For generations of people, the Etihad will never measure up to Maine Road, the Emirates will never compare to Highbury, the London Stadium will never compare with Upton Park, and so on. And that’s because the inefficiencies forced by history aren’t seen as inefficiencies. Instead, they’re characterful.

That’s the position we’re football is now in with VAR, the new system of video replays that we’re all becoming familiar with thanks to its use over the summer international tournaments. If you were designing football from scratch, today, of course you’d use video replays.

The case for it is clear. We understand the problems it is solving. We understand that even if it’s not completely perfect, it should be able to solve more problems than it causes, even if it won’t always feel like it. We understand that it’s ridiculous to expect between one and five men to use their legs and eyes alone as they try to keep up with 22 of the world’s finest athletes playing a chaotic team sport.

The issue is that we’ve had 160 years without it, and that weighs incredibly heavily. VAR will be pegged back and riddled with doubts for years to come, because we are so familiar and in love with a version of the game that doesn’t include it. That is not a rational thing, but that doesn’t make it less real or less important. You can’t solve inherently irrational problems with logic any more than you can get a broken computer to work by telling it you love it and believe in it.

VAR still hangs in the balance at the moment: if the feeling is that it doesn’t clarify decisions satisfactorily while bringing unacceptable delays into the game, nobody will be terribly happy with it. But paradoxically, it may still be a big success in exactly the opposite way to the one that was intended.

Before its implementation, the football world was split into two camps: the pro-group, who felt it would bring greater purity to the sport, and the doubting traditionalists, who feared it would remove some of the romance and unpredictability from the game.

Weirdly, it’s not inconceivable that those two camps could completely switch their positions on the technology, at least in the form it has taken so far. If it worked perfectly and flawlessly, it would be accepted into the game with a shrug of the shoulders like goal-line technology.

By being idiosyncratic in its own different ways, there is the possibility that VAR will come to be one of the most cherished aspects of the game by the traditionalists who put character over efficiency, while those who just want decisions to be uncontroversially correct will grow infuriated that it doesn’t work as it should.

I count myself in the moderniser camp, and had naively hoped that VAR might shift some of the attention back away from tediously poring over refereeing decisions in the analysis of every single game. Of course, we now know that if the past few weeks are anything to go by it’s only going to pull the officials’ decisions into sharper focus.

It will be fascinating, though, to see which way public sentiment towards VAR goes: with a shrug, a retreat, or affection at another beloved wrinkle in the development of the game?

Steven Chicken

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