I used to be luridly in love with the great game of rugby union, but I fear we’re growing apart, and not just because my team hasn’t beaten the bloody All Blacks since Russell Crowe was a Kiwi – it’s more serious than that.
I recently shelled out big bucks to go to a Wallaby Test, but it soon became apparent that what I’d actually paid to watch was some badly dressed bloke staring at a TV screen, because – much as it enthusiastically did to rugby league some years ago – the video-review system has now screwed union.
Honestly, I could have saved a small fortune by staying at home and watching Gogglebox (or giving myself a lobotomy with a spoon, same thing).
Rather than giving its video bunker a deceptively exciting name like ‘war room’, or the Russian version, ‘VAR Room’, rugby seems to have decided it will be more fun if the referee stands on the field and watches anything contentious on the big screens, along with the crowd. In this particular game, the ref did so for a good five minutes after the final siren, before awarding the win to the other team on the basis of video ‘evidence’.
The fact is, of course, that video footage attempts to make something gloriously inexact into an exact science, yet it, too, is flawed and imperfect, which is why the Indian cricket authorities consistently oppose the use of technology. It’s just not cricket.
Rugby, of course, is a game where no one can really see, or understand, what’s going on, even with 1,000 cameras, and part of its great mystery used to be trying to deduce why the referee had made any particular call. It was best left that way.
The great game of football, or soccer if you’re a heathen, has now joined the horde of video-refereed sports and while this is generally a bad idea, it occurs to me that this is one game that could be improved, and possibly even redeemed, by the use of video technology.
It could, in short, become an actual man’s game overnight, rather than a flurry of floppy flimflammers with bad tattoos and shins made of porcelain hurling themselves at the pitch in an effort to fool the bloke with the whistle into giving them a penalty, which is often enough to win the whole game.
It has long been my belief that a truly great piece of comic television could be created by asking the world’s best soccer players to tackle some second-grade rugby forwards, as hard as they like, and then vice versa, because it often seems that the kind of tussles that leave footballers flapping like gutted fish would barely raise an eyebrow on a Kiwi in a black jumper.
Is it a matter of pain thresholds, though, or is football just proof that some of the world’s best-paid humans are its most talented actors? And would football not be a faster, less frustrating and frankly more admirable game if “simulation”, as they comically dub it, was taken out the back and actually shot?
Because it’s genuinely doable with video refereeing. You don’t have to catch every diver, every time, and some of them are so good at faking it even the best cameras in the world won’t trap them, but there are always enough obvious howlers, “people going down when the wind blows” as one wit recently put it, to make the use of tech effective.
All FIFA needs to do is announce that it will review the video of all contentious issues, in every game, and then hand out three-game suspensions for anyone found to have taken a dive.
Yes, there’ll be legal cases and experts with graphs, but pretty quickly enough people would be caught to make the rest of them think very seriously about trying it on again.
Even a master of the diving art like Brazil’s Neymar might have to retire his Speedos, and get on with doing what he’s even better at; kicking the ball.
It may seem like a radical suggestion, but actually, it’s a very simple one, and effective, too, I reckon. So, if we can all agree that simulation is simply a form of cheating and that the world would be better off without it, why can’t FIFA just fix it?
Frankly it would make all the other annoying video intrusions into my other favourite sports almost worth it.