“IT’S A SHAMBLES”, “it’s all wrong”, wailed former England striker Alan Shearer, delivering a savage assessment of English football’s early forays into video technology from the BBC Match of the Day studio.
Shearer reached for the machine gun when assessing Chelsea’s FA Cup tie with Norwich, in which Chelsea’s Willian – as is the tendency of the modern footballer – tumbled to deck under the slightest of flicks from an opposing defender.
No penalty. Willian booked. The video assistant referee ratifying the decision. Shearer incensed. And VAR peppered with a fusillade of verbal bullets.
Football is awash with these incidents. Players have become experts at crumpling to ground so convincingly as to fool the officials. Seedy phrases that defend the “entitlement” of a player to go down since “there was contact” are commonplace in punditry. And Shearer is absolutely right to say video replays do not eradicate human subjectivity.
Until we cook up some sort of computerised robot ref, however, that will remain the nature of officiating. And providing referees with the best possible chance to make the right call is an absolute no-brainer.
It is incredible that a sport with football’s global appeal and lavish wealth has not implemented some such system until recently.
Rugby, decades football’s junior as a professional entity, and a sport often chastised for woolly, blazer-clad intransigence, is almost 20 years into its video technology venture. The role of the TMO has changed much in that near-two-decade spell, and rugby is still tinkering with the protocols in search of the ideal formula.
It hasn’t quite nailed it, but it’s pretty close. And as former elite referee Ed Morrison explains in a Betway interview, not only does the system need time to bed in, “there isn’t a 100 per cent, foolproof” way of operating it.
The flaws, though, have much more to do with World Rugby’s ever-changing emphasis on specific areas of the law-book than the protocol itself.
The tackle, the breakdown, the set-piece, aerial collisions, forward passes, contact to the head – myriad laws are required to cover all the eventualities when 200-plus kg collides at high speed, incidents that are often warped by slow-motion replays.
To navigate the legal minefield, rugby referees and TMOs communicate as though both have swallowed a Shakespearean thesaurus.
Football, by and large, is unencumbered by this legislative mire. It is already ahead of the curve in the respect that the video assistant referee, in his/her present iteration, has a clear remit with firm boundaries.
They may only be used to overturn a “clear and obvious error”. Referees must still make the original call, in real time, meaning football should not stray into tedious over-reliance on technology.
That also torpedoes the more philosophical notion among football fans that their entertainment and moments of euphoria are to be sacrificed at the altar of VAR.
The – not entirely unfounded – fear that the video official will swiftly morph into an omnipotent footballing overlord, whose constant interjections are ruinous for fluency and excitement, is apparently widespread.
But what would supporters, indeed football players and managers, prefer? That their joy, if legitimate, is delayed by a matter of seconds, or that they are robbed of goals and points by inaccurate decisions that could so easily be corrected?
Learning whether the ball has crossed the goal-line, or a player is offside should be a rapid and painless process. Ruling on penalty claims such as Willian’s or red-card tackles can be difficult, and will remain controversial, but referees will get them right far more often than not when they have the VAR safety net to back them up.
Consider this too. Since the inception of a 20-team Premier League in England, the greatest number of goals scored per season stands at 1,066. That’s an average of 2.81 goals per match.
Not every goal needs ratification from the TMO – even allowing for disallowed goals, penalty claims and foul play, we’re talking about a handful of potential referrals in 90-plus minutes of football. Hardly disruptive. Hardly the stop-start, NFL-style dirge some would portray as the VAR-led future degeneration of the game. And unquestionably worth pursuing in the interest of fairness and accuracy.
The result? More accurate decisions, and fewer post-match gripes. In-game benefits to the non-offending team, rather than awaiting the outcome of a disciplinary review days after the final whistle.
Oh, and football aficionados can spare us the nonsense about destroying the “romance” of sport, the pathetic refrain that erroneous officials and controversial decisions are simply part of the beautiful game.
It does far more damage to football’s credibility when matches hinge on incorrect decisions, “ghost goals” and red cards that are later rescinded, than taking a moment to ensure the call made is the right one.