I have a feeling that football is about to enter one of the most critical points of its history. The game’s lawmakers have approved the international use of Video Assistant Referees – VAR – and the technology will now likely be seen at the forthcoming World Cup in Russia. I have long thought it strange that the world’s most watched sport has not used technology to help officials get the decisions right and the introduction of goal line technology has proved how effective it can be.
However, I have real concerns the game could be about to take a path that causes irreversible damage to its reputation and permanently dent its huge popularity. The death knell for the football bubble has been forecast many times before but VAR could be the pin that pops that bubble. After this week’s FA Cup tie at Wembley, Tottenham’s Danny Rose described the system as shambolic and a disgrace. Half of players in Germany seem to agree with him and don’t want it continued there.
Managers have also expressed a dislike for VAR, as they queue up to suggest it ruins the flow of the game. This is partly true, but when you think the ball is out of play for at least a third of most matches this argument seems weak. There is also a strong case to say the system needs to be tested properly before we make a judgement. Other sports experienced problems early on but now use video widely for reviews. But other sports are other sports; the lessons might not translate to football.
The reason I say this is that technology cuts to the heart of football, or at least the reason why I fell in love with the game. The atmosphere. That moment of absolute joy when your team scores or an opposition penalty is saved. Of course you cast a quick eye to the linesman and check his flag but the celebration is uninhibited and utterly joyous. It’s an escape. I have climbed over people, run down steps, and hugged strangers when Reading have scored critical goals (and yes, before you say it, there have been a few!).
How will those moments be in this dystopian world I foresee though? A goal is scored and instead of a quick check to the referee or assistant, you are wondering whether 15 seconds later it will be ruled out. Right now every goal is checked and that means every time someone scores there will be doubt in my mind. The air is sucked out of the moment; that instant joy is lost. Because it’s the fans that are being ignored with this technology. We don’t even get to hear what’s being reviewed and why. There is no big screen replay and many grounds do not have that facility anyway.
In cricket, umpires now always review a run out it seems. They know the technology is there and therefore play safe. But bad decisions are still made. Human error still occurs. The stats suggest ‘correct’ decisions went up from 93 percent to 98 percent in football with VAR but is it really worth that 5 percent? I might be over reacting and foreseeing doom and gloom when there’s no need but for me fans are the game; we are the ones that make football special. Players score and run to us; they sing songs in winning dressing rooms that the fans have sung at them; TV games with excited crowds and great atmosphere are always much better to watch. Kill that and you kill the game. Video technology may bring fewer errors but it might bring with it greater problems. The fans may be forgotten. Do that and the game dies.