By James McMahon
It’s the hot topic of the moment in English football, with pundits and fans alike struggling to come to a definitive answer to the questions raised by the FA’s tentative dip of the toe into the world of video assistant referees. In the few games in which VAR has been released into the wild, it’s seen varying degrees of success, more often achieving little other than baffling spectators and fans at home – not quite the desired baby steps of a system designed to eliminate errors and confusion. It is, however, certain to be introduced to the Premier League for good in seasons to come, so perhaps it’s worth taking a gander at how the Italians have been getting on with their new toy this season, and the effect it’s had on the way the sport functions as a whole.
Back in January, Nicola Rizzoli, head of Italy’s refereeing association, convened a meeting of Serie A’s head coaches to conduct a mid-season VAR-review. Like in England, the reception so far had been polarised, as prominently demonstrated by Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi, who insisted that his side were somehow 9 points worse off than they would otherwise have been. Aside from the politics, though, the conference brought into play some interesting and unexpected statistics which shine a new light on the impact of VAR on how football has been played.
First off, there were 1,078 decisions taken that involved VAR. Of those, 60 corrections were made, 49 mistakes were avoided (don’t ask me what the difference is between the two, but you get the picture), and there were only 11 mistakes. Not what you would expect from VAR given the concern and damnation coming from sections of the British public – an error rate of only 1% must be seen as pretty successful on this front. On top of this, there have been fewer fouls, with 150 fewer yellow cards shown in the first half of this Serie A season than at the same point in the last, which is a staggering statistic. It seems players are becoming more wary of their behaviour, knowing that they’re being monitored by a video referee at all times, and accordingly ensuring they keep out of trouble.
While these stats are undeniably impressive, this improvement in adjudicative precision comes at an important cost, and perhaps the most interesting debate surrounding VAR has been about what it means for the purpose of the sport itself. Although it may well lead to the avoidance of many mistakes with a surprisingly low miss rate, it often comes at the expense of the supporters. While the introduction of all-seater stadiums, the corporatisation of clubs and the explosion of ticket prices since 1992 make up the roots of the separation of football from its fans, VAR, as small an issue as it seems, certainly isn’t helping our cause.
Of course, nobody wants to see their team erroneously denied a legitimate goal or penalty, but when you watch a VAR-officiated game you can understand the impact it has on us as spectators. To start with, those in attendance have absolutely no clue what’s going on when the video assistant awakes from his slumber. Four or five minutes can pass while a decision is being made, with fans in the dark about what is actually going on. Replays aren’t shown on the big screens (and, obviously, for good reason), meaning all spectators can do is shrug their shoulders, go fetch a £10 pie and sit tight until the referee allows play to continue.
On top of that, VAR tends to spoil those moments of ecstasy, euphoria and release that come when a goal is scored. Instead of jumping out of your seat to celebrate, you find yourself worrying for somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds about whether the referee missed a foul in the buildup or the linesman failed to spot a marginal offside – the football fan, ever the pessimist, always expects the goal will be disallowed. When the referee finally points towards the centre circle, that rush of excitement which forms the basis of our love of football has disappeared. Although, as previously stated, it’s a long time since fans have held a major stake in football as opposed to the monopoly of multinationals, sponsors and oligarchs, surely we should be clinging on to the spontaneity of football and the emotional twists and turns we are subjected to that drive us to the stadiums, pubs and television sets in the first place.
This is not a Luddite view. Goal-line technology, for example, has been a positive addition to the game because the decision is instantaneous. But if we can agree that football exists to be watched by and to entertain us, rather than purely as a showcase of athleticism and skill which must be accurately rewarded, or solely as a money-making enterprise for club owners and TV companies, then anything that so severely interrupts the flow of a match must be opposed, even if that means errors continue to be made.
I’m sure that the VAR train is now unstoppable, though, but in an era of Ashleys, Oystons and Venkys, £70 match tickets and £70m defenders at the biggest of the big clubs, football is already so far detached from its supporters. Let’s not continue to allow ourselves to be overlooked. While VAR may seem comparatively insignificant, it’s important to show that supporters can still wield power over those at the top of the sport. Let’s reassert ourselves as the heart of the game, one step at a time, and work together towards a future where you don’t have to be in the top tax bracket to be able to experience the thrill of following your team home and away. We can yet bring an atmosphere back to those dizzy, geometric arenas.