Soccer  

VAR was supposed to make football better. It’s gotten worse

Remember how it was said that the VAR would end all the errors and the arguments and there would be peace? How everything was going to be OK and injustice history, how they joked that the only problem was that coaches, players and presidents would have nowhere to hide, no handy excuse to hold onto, and those late-night mass debaters would have nothing left to shout about? That was a laugh, wasn’t it?

OK, so that’s pushing it a bit, hamming it up a little, but those days are worth revisiting, and here’s a real quote from the real president of the Spanish referees’ committee from back then: “With VAR, what are we going to talk about after the game?”

Victoriano Sanchez Arminio’s tongue was in his cheek, a little dig — heaven forbid they talk about the actual game — and surely everyone was aware, deep down, that the arguments wouldn’t stop entirely. Not least because many didn’t really want them to.

It didn’t take long for Ernesto Valverde’s words to be proven correct: “We knew it wouldn’t be the end to the controversy. One day, it’s one person’s turn to complain; the next, it’s someone else’s.”

There was something in those ideas, though — optimism. Things could only get better, they said.

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They got worse.

The promise of perfection does that. Not so much in terms of the refereeing, the decisions or the justice, not really, but in everything else. The noise, the anger, the confrontations. The cynicism and the uncertainty. The stuff that goes with the game. And y’know, the actual game, which is the part that matters, even if it so rarely looks that way. And at the risk of being an old man shouting at a cloud, a dinosaur lamenting the dying of the light, a principal deciding that, no, it’s the children who are wrong, this week provided more evidence, a neat little portrait of the way things are in Spain.

This was a week in which a first-division team was denied a vital victory that genuinely could be the difference between survival or going down; an assistant referee reportedly broke down in tears, repeatedly saying sorry, two referees were put in the “freezer,” taken off the games they were due to work this weekend, and a third wrote a letter of apology. “This has hurt me more than anyone,” he said.

A week in which a newspaper denounced a “scandalous persecution” against their team, “condemned to live near the bottom of the table” — well, they weren’t going to denounce one against anyone else’s — and declared the competition “adulterated”; a club president flew into a fury and blamed the federation and the federation blamed the league and the league attacked the federation. Which is what they do, all the time. That club president demanded the game be replayed, and vowed to take the matter to court. Not a sporting court, an actual court with a judge and everything. He was going to sue.

And all for an un-blown offside decision that no one saw and wasn’t that bad.

That wasn’t that bad. But that is now. And amid all the other considerations, of which there are many — from concepts to consistency, clarity to confusion, the supremacy of “contact” as if that were everything — that may just be the (second) most significant change of all since the introduction of VAR.

VAR makes everything bad. That contact is bad, that tackle is bad, that handball is bad, that offside is bad. Seen, slowed down, stopped, started and magnified, made into something that maybe it is not. Made into something. The footage studied over again and again until something comes into view, because something must. The tiniest contact a penalty, the slightest glance a grab. The miniscule made decisive.

On Monday night, with nine minutes left in a huge clash near the bottom of the table, Elche scored an equaliser. At the start of the move, the goal scorer, Ezequiel Ponce, had begun from an offside position. Heading backward toward his own goal, when he reached a headed clearance alongside the centre circle and laid it off to a teammate he was well onside again, but he had begun his run from fractionally ahead of the last defender. His touch kept the play alive, and he turned and ran to join the attack. The ball went wide, three more passes following before he headed a superb finish into the net, making it 1-1.

None of Cadiz’s players appealed. No one had seen Ponce’s position, which hadn’t been of obvious benefit to him (he had further to go to get to the ball). The assistant referee hadn’t raised a flag. And the newspaper that later claimed Cadiz had been the victims of “a holdup in their own house, 17,000 people watching a con job” hadn’t spotted it while those 17,000 witnesses weren’t in uproar, almost as if they hadn’t witnessed it at all. In fact, half an hour after the game had finished, the same paper was drawing the lines and asking: was the equaliser offside? The opportunity for outrage hadn’t fully presented itself yet, but when it did there was no letting go.

The answer to the question was “yes.” And to be absolutely clear: none of the above justifies that the VAR didn’t spot it, that the play was not revised. Offside, after all, is not subjective; it is objective. You are or you aren’t. And Ponce was. Not by much, but he was. When you have VAR, a system designed to detect it, lines drawn with architectural precision, it should be seen. Insignificant though it might have been, the rules are what they are: the goal should not have stood. But it did. And that is wrong. It is also entirely natural that footballers, who give everything to compete, might lose their heads.

“The referee said sorry,” Cadiz manager Sergio Fernandez said afterwards, but that wasn’t much use to him by then. Guadalupe Porras, the assistant referee, was in tears, it was said: she thought it could be offside and asked for it to be looked at. Cadiz’s president Manuel Vizcaino said that night that he was “still waiting for our two points — maybe they’ll come from Arabia.” That, of course, is where the Spanish Supercopa had been held: the federation president Luis Rubiales was there for a Clasico final. Vizcaino accused him of not caring about the small clubs. He said as much on every radio show.

The accusations continued. The referees’ committee, which depends on the federation, asked the league to pay for semi-automatic offsides, which sounded a little like an abdication of duty. The league accused them of “evading responsibility … in the face of the constant complaints of the professionals of Spanish football,” and trying to “shift the blame to a body that has nothing to do with refereeing matters.” The referees on VAR had their next games taken off them, punishment for a clear error.

Referee Iglesias Villanueva wrote an open letter apologising, saying he was “angry, hurt, and annoyed with myself,” aware that “a decision of mine has damaged Cadiz.” But, he added, he would not accept that referees’ independence and honesty was questioned almost daily. Which it is, endlessly. In the media, of course, everyone was outraged.

So much for nothing left to talk about, no more arguments.

They were right to deal with it, of course, even to debate it. Just as Cadiz were right to be annoyed. As their president put it: this was not “a mere human error, but a grave and manifest technical error.” The evidence was right there in front of everyone’s eyes. Even more importantly, it had been — or should have been — right there in front of the video referee’s eyes, on a screen he can watch over and over. That’s the point of VAR.

It may also be the problem of it.

This not a lament for a lost age of ignorance. And it certainly is not a justification for this specific decision, which was an open-and-shut case, and wrong. It is not a call for the abolition of VAR, although at times you wonder whether it might be better to chuck the whole thing out the window. There was none in the Copa del Rey and frankly it wasn’t missed. It is better that things are seen, that when laws are broken, they are acted upon.

But there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and Monday was just another illustration of how this is not the panacea it was presented as being, nor the paradise promised. Not because mistakes can still be made, but because the impact of them is worse than it ever was before, the sense of injustice greater. Precisely because perfection was the promise. Sunlit uplands and all that. And that was always a myth. The whole thing is a myth, in fact. Right from the start.

The introduction of the VAR, like so many things, was predicated on a lie: on the lie that football had a really, really, really serious problem. That it was dreadful. That hideous injustices were happening all the time. They. Just. Weren’t. And they’re not perfect now, either. Besides, it’s not even about that. It’s about the decisions; it’s about play, about that great forgotten element: the actual game.

It’s about the impact, how they referee differently, conditioned by the all-seeing eye, how the tension increases and the time is wasted, how so many matches are decided by what feel like bureaucratic incidents, how what didn’t matter now matters more than anything else. How the introduction of VAR has necessitated other changes to make sense of it, to justify it, to try to get the best of it: endless circulars, changes made, explanations offered.

How things that were just left are now elevated to everything. How even some of the things it was supposed to bring, it hasn’t. The ultimate goal of VAR allowing for its own disappearance, bad habits removed from the game, will never happen. Take diving, which, counter-intuitive though it sounds, is inadvertently encouraged now: seek a contact, take the fall, hear the whistle, which is now more likely than ever precisely because there’s a video there as backup, a way out for referees, wait for the screen to show that there was a touch there, score from the spot.

It’s about the takeover of the machines, “objectivity” applied in a game where refereeing criteria was in charge and now is in collapse, but not completely. Machines still need men and women to work them. And when the machines take over, there’s no going back. The box has been opened now; it can’t be closed again. So you try to make it work. When you have the technology you want more of it, always reaching for some solution just beyond your grasp, so it invades more and more and so it never ends. It is about, in short, the pursuit of something impossible and not even desirable, conflicting interests conditioning everything.

It’s not even about the justice, the decisions themselves. That’s more incidental than it might appear. And anyway, there has not been a sea change in justice — which is an elusive concept anyway. According to Spain’s referee’s committee, more than 93% of decisions were correct pre-VAR. Now it is almost 98%.

Let’s assume that we can trust that calculation, that we even trust and share post-event judgements of “correct.” That’s an improvement, yes. Getting the correct decision 98% of the time is a high figure — very high — but 93%, many of the mistakes minor, doesn’t reveal a game that was broken. These weren’t referees that were a disaster or a sport that would sink. For a five-percentage-point improvement, the game gets changed. Is it worth it? Maybe, yeah. Or maybe not. And those percentage points look so much bigger now. And that’s the thing. Or at least it was this week.

As Monday showed, errors keep happening. How could they not? And that 2% is harder to swallow than the 7% ever was: the anger greater, the accusations harsher, the conspiracies easier to come by. The impact of all of that is greater, more damaging. The biases, meanwhile, are the same as they ever were, judge and jury, from clubs to fans to media, not exactly impartial. There’s a nice line from the former Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta that says something like: we demand precision and objectivity, but with one condition … it’s on our side.

He said that pre-VAR; it hasn’t changed. Listen to those debates, the ones that were going to go away, and you know what the conclusions are going to be from each participant. Not because of what happened but to whom it happened. Because the VAR, that machine that was supposed to end all arguments is the subject of them, a proxy war serving to dig those trenches ever deeper. When it’s not a human error anymore but the machines, it’s so much more sinister, the conspiracy so much more compelling, acceptance so much harder, the noise so much louder, the paranoia so much more profound. And so it all goes on, the circus, just as it was always going to.

This would fix everything. There would be peace, they said. Oh, how we laughed.