We were all wrong about VAR. Those of us who were against VAR were wrong and the people who wanted VAR were wrong. And then there is the special category of wrong ‘uns, to which your correspondent belongs, who were against VAR and then came around to VAR — who proved to be doubly wrong.
Everything we thought about VAR was wrong, but the wrongest thinkers were, of course, the people who worried it would rob football of its beloved ‘talking points’ — that it would cut off the game’s life support of ‘controvassy’. We can safely say that these people’s deepest fears have been put to rest. We can be pretty confident they weren’t condemned to awkward silence in their social interactions this week.
But they were wrong too, those optimistic souls who placed all their trust in the small screen, whose dreams of a better, more just world revolved around referees being able to watch action replays. They cannot yet have found peace, these telly addicts. They must remain restless and unfulfilled, like Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka’s factory. There have been varying other shades of wrongness.
You were warned on this page of an unwatchable, stop-start future, that “the machines will prove anything is a penalty. That a million little fouls that once went unpunished will now be detected”.
But to be fair to them, the referees haven’t overdone it, in the search for ‘contact’ in the box. You might even conclude they have drawn on the mythical ‘common sense’ when it comes to the contact.
So I was wrong there. But I was wronger still, while under the influence of the natural highs produced by a World Cup, to pull the handbrake on a screeching u-turn and pay rich tribute to the faceless men and women in the ‘centralised video operation rooms’ who were now ruling our lives.
“We are slowly growing to trust them — AVAR, VAR 1, VAR 2 and VAR 3,” is how I put it, misleading people. Because trust has been in short supply this week, as the people of Paris and Rome and Madrid raged at various persecutions by VAR. While the more benevolent among the wronged parties might once have accepted that the referee just didn’t quite see an incident, they must now search for other explanations. And that is when the tinfoil hats go on and minds wander into dark areas. There are other things we were wrong about, or didn’t foresee, with VAR. The many who suffer a phobia of mime have a new pet peeve to sit alongside the brandishing of imaginary yellow cards; and they seek an urgent clampdown on the scourge of air rectangles being fingered.
And whether induced by VAR or not, nobody quite anticipated how annoying it is when assistant referees leave it to the latest possible moment to put the flag up, no matter how obvious the offside.
On the brighter side, those who argued that VAR would suck the spontaneity out of goal celebrations have been proved very wrong. If anything it has doubled the joy, affording Ajax two celebrations of the same goal on Tuesday night, like the Queen with her birthdays.
And on Thursday morning, as Today FM’s Dermot and Dave tried to explain how a penalty had been awarded to Manchester United because in the Champions League your “body can’t be bigger than your silhouette”, it became clear that VAR has delivered intrigue familiar to the citizens of Rugby Country, who never have the faintest idea why a penalty has been awarded.
But perhaps our greatest fundamental wrongness about VAR was the conviction that it would prove detrimental to the spectacle. Champions League knockout week works well as a showcase of rarefied sporting excellence. But it works better as a parable of competing moral narratives, where the result tells us whose innate virtuosity deserved progress and reveals what fatal flaws undermined the losers’ prospects.
This week’s results indicated the plummet into irrelevance of the Bundesliga, if not the creeping social decay at the heart of German society.
It brought comeuppance for Sergio Ramos as an emblem of cynicism and complacency. And it demonstrated the corrupting influence of unlimited wealth as an inhibitor of moral courage.
On the flip side, it exalted Ajax’s faith in the valour of youth, and the fortitude in plucky little Ole’s unbelievable belief. Even if that belief didn’t take Manchester United within 40 yards of their opponent’s goal very often.
It is sport’s best answer to X-Factor in its pomp, where the back stories of sick grannies and determination to ditch dreary jobs are as integral to the drama as the talent on show. And on Wednesday VAR provided the perfect dramatic denouement, where there was time to assess the competing narratives, to compare the ‘journeys’ and decide which was the more deserving of a destination.
So we were treated to a compelling study of human emotion. The swelling mortification of Presnel Kimpembe, the hopeful glee on the United bench, and the entitled pouting of Neymar, everybody’s bad guy in this parable.
Ok, it wasn’t much of a spectacle for fans in the ground, but nobody cares about them. To everyone else, it was a magnificent five-minute short, certainly in with a better shout of of an Oscar nod than PSG knocking the ball around tentatively during those minutes. Perhaps with a Sigur Ros soundtrack swapped in for Darren Fletcher’s commentary.
Even referee Damir Skomina seemed reluctant to end it. As he left his small screen, with his decision made, he instinctively knew he could milk one or two more seconds out of the suspense, X-Factor style, before signalling who would be eliminated.
And while there is no suggestion Skomina called this one based on the narratives, it is not easy to picture anybody giving that penalty to Jose Mourinho. Who knows why Skomina called it. When handball is adjudicated based on the shape of your silhouette, VAR can never really be wrong, whatever the decision. Unlike the rest of us.
Rise of the incredible shrinking man
Students of the game maintain you can tell a good footballer by the way he holds his arms.
Wes Hoolahan is a classic example, something in the way his upper limbs loosely cooperate with the drop of a shoulder. Presumably those shapeshifters will be best equipped to cope with the new normal.
There are pivotal moments in the evolution of a sport that change players’ behaviour. And Uefa’s announcement that everything was satisfactory with Damir Skomina’s decision in Paris might be one.
“The defender’s arm was not close to the body, which made the defender’s body bigger,” they said. We will surely see the practice — ridiculed by proper football men — of defending shots with your arms tucked behind your back became standard. And perhaps with it, other unintended consequences, such as an increase in hopeful shots rained into a forest of bodies. Gary Lineker reckons it’s time everything that strikes an arm become a foul. It would be a shambles, of course, like hockey and the constant interruption of ‘foot’.