VAR starting to feel like a terrifying all-seeing eye

VAR starting to feel like a terrifying all-seeing eye
Referee Ri Hyang Ok signals a VAR review during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group D match between Scotland and Argentina at Parc des Princes on June 19, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“I just hope it’s a total shitshow circus.”

Megan Rapinoe gets it. The USA star is looking ahead to her team’s eagerly-awaited Women’s World Cup quarter-final against France tomorrow night. She is also explaining, in very eloquent terms, that if women’s football is to truly have a milestone moment, it will come when it can attract a frenzy of hype and nonsense to match the carnivals of claptrap that surround the biggest men’s matches.

Rapinoe wants people to talk about women’s football, and understands that usually when people are talking about football, it’s likely that they are not talking about actual football. Shock and sensation move the needle more than tactics and gameplans. Controversy is agenda item number one, passing and shooting come under any other business.

That’s why the mini-furore over the USA team over-celebrating their 13-0 win over Thailand was a good thing. Who cares if the Yanks aren’t likeable? Too much women’s sport coverage is about how admirable and inspirational everyone is. You need some rotters in there, someone to get the tabloids salivating and the big paper columnists thumping their keyboards. Here’s to you, Mrs Mourinho.

‘Shitshow circus’ mightn’t be the aspirational message the Women’s World Cup is trying to project, but they shouldn’t sweat it. Most men’s football coverage these days consists of transfer rumours, people doing unacceptable things on Instagram and tedious replays of contentious refereeing decisions.

And by this last measure at least, the WWC has been a roaring success on the shitshow circus front. By only confirming the use of VAR three months before the tournament, with referees who have never worked with the system in their domestic leagues and then lumping contentious new rulings on top of them, FIFA have guaranteed that officiating at this World Cup has been, indeed, of the exploding clown car variety.

That’s not to say that the referees have got much wrong. The trouble is that the pernickety penalties and soul-sapping stoppages have affected the actual football, that secondary but still mildly important aspect of the whole package.

Too many matches have been decided by technically correct interpretations of glacial slo-mo replays rather than moments of timeless brilliance. The swinging momentum of big games has frequently been stopped in its tracks, replaced by endless minutes looking at footage of a stray limb moving hither and yon, like one of those video installations about alienation you see in modern art museums.

When they talk about how VAR ate this World Cup, they will remember the moment Scotland exited the tournament because goalkeeper Lee Alexander inched off her line for a penalty, allowing Argentina the retake and the equalising goal in the match.

They will also point to the Cameroon insurrection against England last Sunday after a series of microscopic decisions went against them, which was interpreted by some as rank indiscipline, but was actually a timely call to arms for humanity against the cold, cruel logic of the machines. This is a surprising turn of events given how we had come to accept our VAR masters.

This season’s Champions League seemed to have knit the techno-twists of the video referee into the great dramatic narrative perfectly. It was like watching a blockbuster action movie where the giant flying robot battle sequences were utterly believeable from a character development point of view.

This World Cup has at least answered the question of how much VAR is too much VAR. While there were just 20 pitchside monitor checks in last year’s men’s World Cup, at which the use of the new-fangled technology was viewed as a big success, by Monday there had already been 22 in France before the Round of 16 was even finished.

Megan Rapinoe scores a penalty against Spain in the Women's World Cup, June 24, 2019.
Megan Rapinoe scores a penalty against Spain in the Women's World Cup, June 24, 2019.

The effect has been like a right-wing government cracking down on petty criminality: there has been an increase of 30% in the amount of penalties awarded when compared with the last Women’s World Cup. But if justice is being done and, through those tedious replays, being seen to be done, why is everyone so unhappy?

Aside from the delays, why is there a pervading sense of things not being quite right, even when they are almost always just that? It could be that the adoption of VAR in football is saying something significant about how we process things like truth, fairness and certainty.

VAR was introduced to eliminate ‘clear and obvious errors’ or ‘serious missed incidents’ and to provide ‘minimum interference-maximum benefit’. As long as it did these things, we were quite happy. Terrible injustices were eliminated and the game was not hugely impacted otherwise.

But as VAR went further, adjudicating on the minutiae of the ever murkier handball laws and razor-thin offside calls, something went wrong. It turned out that we had a built-in tolerance, perhaps evolved over millennia, for the inexactitudes of the human eye. We understand that your truth is not my truth, though we still debate the point. We accept justice and wisdom are in some way intertwined, even if the referee is a crook.

Take the goal that that could have won England their Nations League semi-final against Netherlands earlier this month. Jesse Lingard finished off a beautiful flowing move but was ruled offside by the length of his big toe. No human eye would have spotted the infringement, and though it was a correct decision, it felt unjust.

This strange feeling has been a regular feature of the Women’s World Cup, which has played out like an episode of Black Mirror, with human beings struggling to deal with the insidious encroachment of technology. What is there to optimise our lives is now shaping them with uncaring precision; in this scenario VAR feels less like a helping hand, more like a terrifying all-seeing eye. It’s a shitshow circus all right, but not quite in the way Megan Rapinoe would like.

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