A window into the bright new future we want to give our children and our children’s children. A world free of confusion, controversy and injustice. A world that no longer relies on Martin Atkinson.
Champions League final, 2020. Ashley Young contorts into familiar double pike. The Italian referee rolls his eyes but points listlessly to the spot all the same. Not his call. He barely glances to the sideline for Pep to issue the challenge.
Nobody celebrates. They all know. It’s another job for upstairs.
Immediately, a team of crack CSI agents get to work. Camera 44. Zoom. Depixellate. Amplify. Zoom again. It takes 40 seconds to produce the smoking gun. The faintest congress of Catalan leather with Mancunian cotton.
The 2,000 that dot the main stand celebrate. That is all there is in attendance because football is long dead. It was killed the moment they handed it over to the machines.
A sport has been sapped entirely of spontaneity — all its pivotal moments are now mired in appeal and counter-appeal.
— Irish Examiner,April 21, 2012
There it is, your bi-annual reminder that this page operates more than seven years ahead of the zeitgeist. That this is the place to read of tomorrow’s gloom today.
Ok, 2020 vision wasn’t crystal clear, particularly on Manchester United’s prospects. And it seems quaint now to imagine a day when we’ll be free of confusion and controversy.
I also factored in a challenge-based application of VAR, which hasn’t yet come to pass. Though it may well be the next throw of the dice, according to reports this week.
But, sure enough, on the cusp of 2020, many are close to pronouncing football dead.
“Sick of VAR. In its present state it is killing the game,” tweeted Gary Lineker.
Jamie Carragher, too, has seen enough: “I am seen as someone who is pro VAR. I’m now looking at it and thinking I can’t argue for it anymore.”
Back in 2012, everyone was arguing for it. In this country, the groundwork had primarily been done by Thierry Henry, with his sleight of hand. And naysayers across the water were countered by arguments such as Lineker’s: “You’ve never been in a World Cup quarter-final where someone has punched the ball into the net.”
That is all people wanted really, a state-of-the-art alarm system to protect them from hoodlums such as ‘the thief of Saint Denis’.
Instead, they got a noisy nuisance that keeps being set off by the cat. And by the time VAR was installed, nobody had the faintest idea what handball is anyway.
We were all wrong about VAR, to some extent.
The wrongest, obviously, were those who insisted it would put an end to ‘talking points’, cut off the game’s life support of ‘controvassy’.
Almost as wrong were people who thought it would restore trust in officiating. Now we know officials can see everything, we have only grown more suspicious of what it is they want to see.
The scale of our wrongness can be seen in the latest clamour to fix VAR’s ills.
Once, our greatest fear was referees spending all game studying a pitchside monitor. Now, the first Premier League ref to make a trip to the touchline will get a standing ovation.
Most people probably didn’t think it through, what they wanted from VAR.
Some will tell you they just want factual decisions checked. But that’s not really true either, given the outcry when someone is only a little bit offside.
Turns out we want the same impossible contradiction we have always demanded of referees: common sense and consistency. But now that machines are involved, it’s like asking Siri the meaning of life. “I give up,” Siri will tell you.
My own journey on VAR has taken roughly the opposite route to Gary Lineker.
After last year’s World Cup, in a screeching u-turn, I accepted it had been grand, all told. Albeit with the warning that we hadn’t yet properly seen Premier League referees get hold of it.
We have since seen why there were no Premier League referees at that World Cup.
As a mitigating factor for their own wrongness, they always had up their sleeves the pace of the Premier League. Now we know they can be just as wrong in super slo-mo.
More troubling has been their vulnerability to narrative.
The VAR spent the early weeks of the season finding an angle to match the referee’s view, even if he had to turn over to Eastenders.
Nothing was overruled. But after a blizzard of negative coverage, they have since gone completely the other way, with the VAR now enthusiastically dabbling in CSI work. So now we wonder how else refs have been influenced over the years.
And yet, and yet, even after Everton-Spurs — already regarded as the nadir for VAR — I can’t help think I was wrongest of all in thinking football could ever be killed.
The game’s drama will endure and sometimes VAR has added subplots of intrigue and even comedy.
Chelsea-Ajax, which featured VAR aplenty and two more examples of football’s ludicrous new handball policies, was still, as Gary Lineker said, “an incredible game”.
“Love football,” he noted afterwards, of the corpse.
It’s not great if you’re actually in the ground, one argument goes. But the Bundesliga has had VAR for three years and attendances aren’t affected.
Their refs don’t use it as an over-sensitive alarm system, explained German writer Alex Feuerherdt to TheAthletic: “Referees have compared VAR to an airbag — it’s a safety tool to prevent a fatal crash, they say.”
Even to those who say goal celebrations will never be as unself conscious, we are reminded of certain grounds where you always looked first for a flag going up.
Long before Thierry Henry, that was the lot of Ireland fans at every away international.
In a way, football is now a lot like the internet after GDPR.
Ostensibly more transparent, if more tedious to navigate. We might be set for a future of mild annoyance and unwanted interruptions, but the depth of our addiction is such that we will click on and kick on.