Yet another week has gone by in the Premier League, and VAR was once more at the center of most discussions. Is technology’s quest to implement the rules of football fundamentally changing the game as we knew it?
Technology makes things better and easier. This is what we have learnt over the years, but if you were to speak to football fans in England right now, particularly those of the Sky Blue persuasion they will likely tell you that we are better off without it.
In this weekend’s marquee game between Manchester City and Tottenham at Etihad Stadium for close to two minutes, the Citizens were celebrating their 18th successive win at home thanks to an injury-time strike from Gabriel Jesus. The 3 points would have been duly earned by Pep Guardiola’s team too as they had 30 shots to Spurs’ 3 and somehow the score still read 2-2 after 90 minutes.
As Jesus and his teammates were starting to return to the center circle after wrapping up their celebrations, the producers cut to a shot of referee Michael Oliver speaking with VAR officials and no one could quite understand why. As the replays started airing, they showed that the ball had deflected off Aymeric Laporte’s left elbow before coming to Jesus and soon the goal was overturned.
The fans were incensed, Jesus was livid and Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris had a wry smile. The Tottenham began a rendition of ‘VAR my Lord!’ which continued through to the final whistle a few moments later. City’s incredible winning run had been halted thanks to a combination of a change in the handball rule and VAR’s implementation rather than an opponent besting them. The beautiful game seemed a bit less beautiful in that moment.
Let’s start with making one thing clear, VAR got the decision right given that the new rule changes around handball mean that any contact with the ball by hand leading to a goal will be deemed an offence, and the goal subsequently chalked off. These rules have only been put at the start of this season, so objectively the correct call was made. But at what cost?
Before VAR, the goal would have stood as it was simply impossible to notice the deflection off Laporte’s hand in real-time. As VAR checks every goal, it was then in the slo-mo replays that this was noticed. Laporte had no intention to handle the ball nor were his hands in an unnatural position, in fact, if the ball had hit a defender in the same place, no penalty would have been awarded as it would not have been intentional.
This strict implementation of the rules is something that football fans will have to get used to, however, there also needs to be a margin of error allowed for players in these cases. We clearly don’t want to see a repeat of Thierry Henry’s infamous handball that led France to the 2010 World Cup or Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ in a crucial game. But, incidents like the one in Manchester this Saturday are perhaps sanitizing the game a tad too much.
Other sports have also had to get acquainted with using new technologies and adjust as a result. In cricket, the Decision Review System (DRS) has been amended several times and best not to even start on Ultra-edge and Ball-tracking. All these technologies though accept that there is a certain margin of error in calibration, and often will respect the on field’s umpire initial decision unless there is conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
Similarly, not all decisions are checked either with only those reviewed by the batting or bowling team undergoing intensive scrutiny. This still allows the game to have an element of error which teams must accept, grudgingly or not. This way, the fans in the stadium and at home are clued into what is happening on the field. Most importantly, the decision of the umpire still holds a significant weight, which in football isn’t the case anymore.
It is simply impossible to get every decision right in any sport. Every sport is won and lost on the smallest of margins and trying to achieve perfection in critical decisions is perhaps a price not worth paying. Football’s implementation of VAR is not necessarily making the game a better spectacle. If anything, it is taking away from the raw emotion and adrenaline of seeing a last-minute winner and replacing it with a sense of dread. How the game handles its move into its technological future, will be a key question for the authorities to answer.