Football is a game of opinions. It is, at the same time, one of the sport’s greatest qualities and greatest flaws…
Fan opinions drive non-stop debate on social media, in group chats, on podcasts, in comments sections and, when the world returns to normal, in stadiums, pubs and other social settings. Everyone has an opinion. Some shared, some poles apart. But we all have them. And because so many of us hold them so strongly, football is the most watched sport on the planet. The Premier League is the most-widely viewed competition the sport has to offer. It’s popularity is driven, in large part, by our opinions. And because of the very nature of football, comprised by teams and allegiances, it’s rare to find someone with an opinion entirely free from bias. And that’s fine. It’s perfectly normal, almost preferable for the continued success of the beautiful game.
Thursday’s decisions to disallow Josh Maja’s would be equaliser at Craven Cottage was not due to a subjective opinion of the referee or indeed the Video Assistant Referee in Stockley Park. It was a decision borne out of the desire to remove opinion from the equation, by football rule-makers IFAB. The handball rule has been tweaked on numerous occasions since technologically assisted decision making became the norm. We’ve seen them given harshly against defenders, and now there is more leeway. That same leeway has not existed for attacking players, but that reform now appears to be on its way.
The problem is, by removing the opinion of a referee from the equation, you end up with robotic, non-sensical decisions, like the one handed down as Fulham sought a valuable goal. Handball is not an objective scenario. There are too many intangibles associated with it. It’s why the scrutiny has been lessened when it comes to defending. For VAR to prove effective, if not perfect, it can not be relied upon to determine subjective issues. It won’t please everybody and there will be inconsistencies, but referees will need to make decisions in real time. Everyone is susceptible to changing their mind with regards to another human being’s intent, if they watch enough replays in slow motion.
However, it’s not just handball that continues to drain the joy from the planet’s premier past time. The Whites are yet to fall afoul of the dreaded red and blue lines that appear when an offside decision is being made. Goals have been disallowed for the length of a toenail, all the while leading me to wonder, did any fan ask for this? We watch football for goals. The beauty of football is that scoring is a special occasion. Points are premium, unlike other sports where high scores are the norm. Fans will wait for 90 minutes to celebrate a last-gasp winner with every fibre of their being. But now, we delay, because what once looked onside, might be offside. If you need two lines to make a determination, surely the benefit should lie with the attacker? One line always sufficed before VAR and I’m sure no one will cry “robbery!” because a striker has bigger feet than the opposition full-back. But the minute details that IFAB have insisted upon, just because they can, is making the game “sterile” as the Scott Parker so eloquently put it.
There are other sports that have introduced video technology to far greater affect. They have already made the mistakes and worked out the kinks. It should have been much a smoother transition for football than it has been, with the advantage of being able to borrow from elsewhere. But in their apparent arrogance, the governing bodies have insisted on doing it in their own way. The desire to leave the final decision in some instances with the on-field referee, but not in others is baffling. If the rules are clear, it shouldn’t matter who makes the decision, as the decision should always be the same. In subjective cases, it can’t be considered “clear and obvious” and so the addition of another opinion will only muddy the waters.
VAR can be effective, but only if used sparingly, and implemented efficiently. There is no need for a pitch side monitor. They don’t use them in rugby, cricket or the NFL. For it to work, it needs to be reduced to objectivity and only specific scenarios. It should also not have a detrimental impact on the enjoyment of the game, the currency of which is goals. The referee on the field should in most circumstances initiate any use of VAR, much like in rugby. Upon making a decision, communication with the VAR should commence, with the referee asking only objective questions. In the example of a penalty being awarded, the referee communicated with the VAR and asks those questions:
“I have awarded a penalty as I have seen a foul. Can you confirm that the defender has not won the ball?” If the answer is no, the next question would follow; “Has the defender made contact with the attacker?” If the answer is yes, the penalty is awarded. If the answer is no, it is not. The referee will already have determined in his or her own mind if any contact was sufficient to cause the attacker to lose possession. Asking the VAR to confirm this would create further issues, as they can only offer another opinion.
A similar approach can be taken with red cards, and the checking of offsides and indeed handball. If the referee is unsure or misses it completely, they should cede responsibility to the official with access to a better view, but again slow-motion should not be used in decision making process when the question surrounds intent. Only when the referee has missed a key incident, does the VAR need to insert themselves into the equation. At which point, they should be free to make the decision. Red cards for violent conduct are the most clear example of this. The margin for offsides needs to be considered, but simply put if offside can not be proven with the use of a single line, the benefit should lie with the attacking team. The other key aspect that is missing from football, is that the conversation between on field referee and VAR needs to be heard, both in the stadium and for broadcast viewers. Again, this happens elsewhere.
It will never be perfect. Our bias will always lead to dissension. Even the heralded TMO of rugby still has it’s moments. Less than a week before Mario Lemina’s supposed infraction, Wales scored a try against England, that those with Roses on their chest would argue was aided by a knock-on. But there are less such instances, and that should be the result of VAR. Less talk about decisions that impact results, not articles like this, bemoaning another negative experience, brought to you by Stockley Park.