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The VAR Debate: Is Technology Ruining Sports?
Sport|Apr 21, 2021

The VAR Debate: Is Technology Ruining Sports?

Or Is It Just Ruining The High-Speed World Of Football, In Its Many Guises? Rob Pegley Investigates.
Rob Pegley

“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” is a phrase well known in the world of psychology.

For some, the need for perfectionism, as they see it, often comes with a need to exert control and an inability to let things go.

Even if that ruins the moment.

They may be correct, but it takes the form of boring, hairsplitting pettiness.

Many English soccer fans might then describe the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) as an annoying control freak constantly interrupting their enjoyment with its pedantic need to be right.

In the world of soccer, a few terrible decisions over the years (or great ones, depending who you support) have caused huge controversy. The recently deceased Maradona’s Hand of God is arguably the biggest.

Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England at the 2010 South Africa World Cup stands out as another doozy. But then as it was against Germany, in a World Cup game, maybe it just evened out the contentious 1966 goal line decision that famously went the other way in the final. These things do tend to even out over time.

Truth is, there have been some shocking decisions over the years - but actually, not that many.

And surely not enough to have lead to the stop-start culture that currently pervades the Premier League? Stilted celebrations and strange decisions; where a last minute winner leads to the ecstatic reaction being put on hold while an accurate decision is made. Checking details that might not have been seen with the naked eye.

The greatest moments in football over the years have been those moments - sheer, unbridled, Oh My God-ness as the ball hits the back of the net in the last minute. Imagine Man Utd’s comeback celebrations in the 1999 Champions League Final being put on hold while they checked the monitor in the last minute. In fact, twice in the last two minutes.

Ruining those moments, is surely worse than getting a few decisions wrong. Throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It’s like just being about to orgasm after great sex… then your girlfriend asks you to change the condom. Just in case. And then start again.

Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the greatest footballer in the World after the Messi/Ronaldo double act. He recently said: "I don't know the rules anymore, honestly.

I've been playing professional football for 12 years and in the first nine years there were no rule changes. Now there are a lot of rule changes. I don't know why. Football is a nice game. The people making the rule changes need to be in the game."

Ex-Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino went further, saying, “I am for technology, but be careful not to change the game and kill the emotion. My worry is we are talking about a machine and not football.”

Ruining those moments, is surely worse than getting a few decisions wrong.

Bizarrely, the really big decisions that sparked the technological revolution of football are easily and quickly solved. Goal-line technology is pretty seamless; the referee instantly gets a bleep on his phone to say whether the ball has crossed the line and can make a decision within a second.

Liverpool’s experienced midfielder James Milner is a fan: “Goal-line technology is incredible. Instant decision. Black and white”.

But not of VAR.

“It’s very hard to use VAR when you’ve still got opinions on the decisions and the atmosphere in football is being ruined.”

Especially when the resulting decisions seem worse than the one the referee has made in the first place. Patrick Bamford’s goal which was disallowed for Leeds against Crystal Palace was described by Former Premier League star turned pundit Robbie Savage as “the worst decision I’ve ever seen in the history of football.”

Bamford’s hand was judged off side - his fingers deemed ahead of the defender as he pointed where he wanted the ball aimed.

Ridiculous, pedantic and taking away all emotion and momentum from a fast-paced, entertaining spectacle - also known as ‘sport’.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?

See if Phil Gould is happy with the bunker in NRL for more answer on that question.

“They’d check everything if they could, they would check every single play,” he said on Channel Nine, recently. “The referees’ dream is to play the game on Sunday, finish the game at 6 o’clock, pack everything up and say ‘we’ll give you the result on Tuesday’”.

The KFC Bunker was introduced at a cost of $2m to ‘provide NRL review officials with world-class technology and enable them to deliver more accurate, efficient, consistent and transparent decisions’.

In Gus Gould’s words: “They don't have a clue”.

The NRL bunker has been in operation for four years now. In America, the NFL has had instant replay reviews since 1986 – some 34 years – and they’re still trying to get it right.

The NFL can review up to 15 different circumstances using instant replay (VAR in England only reviews four!). The contentious pass interference rule which was introduced for the 2019 season only lasted a year.

And in essence, there is the rub: The rule was introduced after a big and specific decision that altered a whole season for the New Orleans Saints. A huge mistake, but essentially a one-off.

In cricket, meanwhile, they love a bit of technology. Hotspot, the Snicko-Meter and Hawk-Eye have arguably added to the enjoyment of the game, not detracted from it. But then it’s ultimately a slower paced game; you watch for seven hours in the sun with a beer and a pie, studying the game in a leisurely, almost scientific way. Each ball is analysed. The players stop for lunch and tea breaks, for God’s sake. Hotspot and Hawk-Eye notch the drama up, rather than take it down.

Tennis isn’t dissimilar. Hawk-Eye has been around for line calls and player challenges since 2004 after some shocking calls against Serena Williams in a US Open quarter final clash she lost to Jennifer Capriati. The USTA (United States Tennis Association) actually called Williams after the match to apologise.

But again, tennis is slower and compartmentalised - technology acts seamlessly with the game and builds tension, rather than sucking the emotion out of it.

With VAR, Maradona’s Hand of God goal against England at the 1986 World Cup wouldn’t have stood. If that had been the case, he might not have scored the Goal of the Century four minutes later. He might not have gone on to lift the World Cup that year. And his legend might be incomplete - his greatness largely built on that 1986 triumph.

How the referee didn’t see him punch the ball in the net still amazes to this day. But he didn’t. And we’ve all learned to live with it.

That moment has become legendary because the decision was so bad and wasn’t overturned.

If not sport as a whole, then VAR is at least sucking the life out of football games of many varieties, in particular soccer. Maybe the next evolution will be to re-referee past games using technology and reverse the results based on correct decision making.

Maradona would be turning in his grave.

But, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?