If Donald Trump is said to fear walking down steps, my phobia was ‘going upstairs’.
You were warned early and often on this page of a grim, unwatchable future for football; of endless delays, of challenges and appeals, of muted celebrations, and of protracted, super-slo-mo searches for ‘contact’.
And yet, a week into the World Cup, VAR has been grand. Put this down as a U-turn. Or, as the politicians prefer these days, the completion of a journey.
Not everyone is satisfied, of course. But when we hear Danish boss Åge Hareide tell us, “it does remove a bit of the charm of football to have such a precise system”, we can instinctively identify these to be words of a man who has just had a penalty rightly awarded against him.
Interestingly, former Premier League referee Mark Halsey insisted it was farcical that Yussuf Poulsen should be penalised for blocking Mathew Leckie’s header with an arm stretched above his head in our old friend the ‘unnatural position’, a decision even Hareide regarded as charmless but “probably correct”.
It was further evidence, for Halsey, that VAR “shouldn’t be at the tournament”.
But maybe his outrage was further evidence as to why there are no Premier League referees at the tournament.
And as I begin a long, penitent period of soul-searching to examine how I got this one so badly wrong, perhaps, in my defence, it can be offered that I was visualising the operation of VAR in the hands of Premier League referees.
Indeed, there was no need to visualise such a terrible thing, since the Premier League referees had last season’s FA Cup to show us just how much damage they’d be capable of given the use of the machines on a permanent basis.
Crippled with indecision, conferring on everything, taking an age to review replays, we were heading for an era when teams would have to organise new warm-ups every time somebody went down in the box.
But then we are dealing with a special breed of referee in the Premier League, a species whose role is less to apply the rules than to ‘manage the game’.
We have heard how Mark Clattenburg went into matches with a ‘gameplan’.
Bobby Madley recently explained how vital his pre-match chat with both captains is so they understand his ‘approach’.
They seem to have a lot on their minds, these guys, getting their tactics right, before they can even begin to consider keeping an eye on handball in the box.
And still they have become an integral part of the show. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, we learned that Halsey “loved being out there every weekend, playing a part in the world’s most-watched football competition”, his decision-making “as likely to be discussed in Bangkok as Burnley”.
So perhaps the opportunity to get endlessly lost in their decision-making, ensuring there was nothing else to discuss from Bangkok to Burnley, just became too much for them.
Because the lads at the World Cup are making it look straightforward enough. Not much has been missed and the VAR calls have been scarce and swift. Yesterday, VAR saved Bjorn Kuipers from himself when Neymar tumbled under ‘contact’.
It rescued Kiwi ref Matt Conger on a stonewall pen for Iceland. And earlier in the week the penalty awarded to Viktor Claesson against South Korea was a textbook example of why there was such a clamour to allow refs go upstairs.
As we wonder how the VAR officials have been getting all these calls right, yet somehow resisting the temptation to make too many calls, we must consider that it might be because we have no idea who they are, these faceless operatives back in Moscow.
There is no credit in it for these lads, who are not known in Burnley or Bangkok. And while our instincts tell us to worry about the world’s fate being decided in a ‘centralised video operation room’ in Moscow, we are slowly growing to trust them — AVAR, VAR 1, VAR 2 and VAR 3, to give them their official titles.
Alas, the English pundits have taken against it, since Harry wasn’t given his spotter against Tunisia. Unfortunately, grappling in the box figures behind only the waving of imaginary yellow cards, imaginative haircuts, swapping shirts at half-time, and going down too easily, on their list of distastes. So this was always going to be a sore one.
But even in Harry’s distress there were positives for VAR, a sign that common sense has survived a handover to the machines. When they see two or three fouls happening at the same time, the lads in Moscow are capable of saying, ‘fack it, leave ‘em off’.
But it has put these faceless men in the firing line and we know where this is going now.
“Who is Sweden vs South Korea VAR official Mauro Vigliano and how many World Cups has the Argentine refereed in,” demanded The Sun.
Sepp Blatter, never to be found wanting when wrongness is required, has waded in wanting accountability and a VAR figurehead who can be blamed for all mistakes going forward, from Burnley to Bangkok.
Inevitably, we will get to know them all and soon even VAR2 and VAR3 will be writing autobiographies, telling us their gameplan, how they always went for the behind the goal angle first.
And just as we grow to trust what goes on inside the centralised video operation room, we will give them a glimpse of life outside it, a life of credit and blame and headlines from Burnley to Bangkok.
And soon, they will be in the ref’s ear every five minutes and we may well be back where we started.
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