The implementation of VAR, most recently at the Women’s World Cup, has shone a light on a curious subset of the footballing public.
This group of freedom fighters for the way the game used to be wants rules to be observed, but not too stringently. It wants offside to be penalised, but only up to a point. It wants penalty shootouts to be fair, but not really.
This group appears to value spontaneity above all things. This philosophy says getting it right is killing the game. So if someone scores a goal, for God’s sake don’t watch a replay and chalk it off if it turns out it shouldn’t have been allowed: you might spoil the celebrations in the stands. This is what happens when the tail wags the dog.
VAR has got a number of things right in the Women’s World Cup but fans are still not happy
If a VAR decision is correct but only just, it is immediately condemned as heartless, mindless, clueless, friendless, soulless and witless. Just calling it correct would suffice, but that doesn’t seem to matter any more. If a decision upsets a player who has committed an infringement, it is immediately labelled a ‘VAR controversy’. This is also what happens when the tail wags the dog.
Football should be about the fans. I agree with that. But that doesn’t mean the fans should make the rules. The rules are not there to appease fans. They are not there to stop a player shaking her fist or stamping his feet. They are not there to roll with the emotion of the game or ensure that a fairy tale comes true or that a dramatic comeback is not spoiled.
It is an old-fashioned idea, I know, and awfully stuffy and square and rigid but rules are there to give sport a framework in which a contest can be conducted on equal terms. They are there to try and make sure it is fair, not to be bent because it feels good. The statistics from the Women’s World Cup already tell us that decisions are more likely to be correct with the help of VAR.
To many, that seems to be an irrelevance. The most recent calumny perpetrated by VAR, according to the Luddites who wish that they could turn back time to a day before machines and television replays, is that it is destroying the drama of penalty shootouts and bringing untold miseries to goalkeepers who spring off their line before a kick is taken.
Pierluigi Collina, chairman of Fifa’s referees committee, looks on alongside the VAR monitor
VAR is like the Brexit of football. People feel very strongly for it or against it, they are entrenched in their views, and they see everything that happens as being further evidence they are right. Me too, of course.
And yet it does not seem so long ago when we were all bemoaning the fact that penalty shootouts were being distorted by goalkeepers dancing so far towards the taker that they were practically smothering the ball before it had left the spot. That is cheating, of course, but it appears from recent reactions to decisions at the Women’s World Cup that cheating is regarded by some as preferable to enforcing rules.
Tell me this: is a ball out if it only lands a couple of centimetres behind the baseline during a game of tennis? So why should it be any different if a goalkeeper seeks to gain an advantage by moving a step off her line in France? And I don’t want to hear about how it’s impossible for a goalkeeper to stop their forward momentum. Do me a favour. It’s not supposed to be easy to save penalties, so deal with it.
All that is happening here is that we now have the technology to make sure rules are actually observed rather than ignored. The same people now moaning about VAR moaned about the introduction of goal-line technology, too. I’d rather know that a team or an individual won fairly and not with the benefit of a bad decision from a referee or an umpire. But that’s just me.
Referee Stephanie Frappart pauses play during a VAR check in the Sweden and Germany tie
Sport does not stand still, you see. It evolves inexorably. You may have noticed that we no longer play with leather footballs and that shorts aren’t quite as long as they used to be in the 1950s and that not as many supporters wear flat caps as they used to. The game changes and moves on and crowd behaviour changes with it.
The main fear of many of the VAR-sceptics appears to be that it will neuter crowd celebrations among the fans. Really? I didn’t notice anyone holding back when Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield last season. And anyway, VAR intervention is still relatively rare. There wasn’t a single instance in England’s victory over Norway on Thursday night. Let’s still the hysteria around it and watch it work.
Sure, it has sometimes felt as though it has been overused at the Women’s World Cup but that is not VAR’s fault. It is the fault of the way it has been implemented.
It is the fault of FIFA’s lack of preparation and the fact that the referees at the tournament seem, as a result, too ready to revert to VAR rather than trust their own judgment. If this were the men’s game, FIFA would not have been so cavalier.
Using video technology to help referees make correct decisions is the future. It has to be. Journalists aren’t going to go back to writing with typewriters. Tennis players aren’t going back to wooden rackets. The genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in.
Cameroon were left furious against England after a number of VAR calls went against them
So VAR is here to stay. Time to get used to it. And time, too, for the governing bodies to get their act in order and give it a proper chance. Let’s be honest: the way it has been implemented has made football look like amateur night. Failing to make provision for fans in stadiums to follow the course of a VAR decision is unforgivable. It’s a textbook case of how to lose the battle for hearts and minds.
Let’s face it: every other sport makes video technology work. Why can’t football? Because it’s a special case? No. Because the rhythms of the game make it unsuitable? No.
Or because it’s a sport that can be insufferably arrogant about its own importance, irrationally resistant to change and ludicrously incompetent all at the same time? VAR cannot check that, sadly, but then the answer’s clear and obvious anyway.
The news that David Silva is to leave Manchester City at the end of next season has sparked debate about whether he is the greatest foreign import ever to grace the English game. I think he’s in the top five but Dennis Bergkamp heads my list.
The Diego Maradona documentary playing at cinemas now is a tour de force, from the brilliant opening sequence of a white-knuckle car ride through Naples right the way through to its poignant ending on a five-a-side court lit by low-wattage floodlights. And even without addressing the issue directly, it shines a light on the interminably fascinating but endlessly pointless debate about who is the greatest footballer of all time.
The majority of the game footage relates to Maradona’s time with Napoli when he lifted the side to the only two Serie A titles in their history and it is clear even from a cursory glance at the pictures of the ball bobbling across the uneven surface of the Stadio San Paolo that players in Maradona’s era faced more obstacles in the expression of their skill than today’s stars.
It is inevitable that Lionel Messi will be hailed as the best ever simply because he is the most recent, but Messi plays on pitches as smooth as green baize and even though he became unduly upset when James Milner left a shoulder in on him at the Nou Camp last season, the movie is a useful reminder of the brutalist treatment that was routinely handed out to Maradona in Italy.
Messi is a genius who makes the soul sing and I don’t care whether he could do it on a cold winter night in Stoke, but could he have done what Maradona did in Naples? It is enough that Maradona was the greatest of his era, just as Messi is today.
The Diego Maradona documentary playing at cinemas now is a fascinating piece of work