Dinosaurs v Machines: The Future of Football

Flint's Off on One

There’s a bloody massive elephant in the room, and I just can’t avoid it any longer. In fact, if reports are to be believed, the rest of the country and soon the world won’t be able to avoid it either, so let’s dissect this beast once and for all; whether you like it or not, VAR is here.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves; most people don’t seem to be overly fond of it. Some truly horrendous blunders have already been made, with only 53% of Bundesliga players recently polled displaying faith in the technology. Some managers of course will be tentative at best in revealing the full extent of their disdain for fear of incurring the wrath of a bunch of shriveled old white men huddled around a varnished oak table in central London. Other are less restrained. Some even support the idea.

“”You cannot imagine that in the future it will not be used,” Arsène Wenger said yesterday. “We will have to find the proper way to do it, but it has to go that way.” Hmm, hardly a ringing endorsement from a man with apparently appalling eyesight. As if to sum up how turbulent the technology’s inception has been, the same man had also bemoaned the delay between pausing the match and a decision being made in the aftermath of his side’s League Cup draw against Chelsea just a last week.

Ever since the concept of using replays to judge decisions was floated, there arose a curious breed of fans. ‘It’ll kill the game’, they began crying, having miraculously forgotten their outrage at countless decisions against their team. ‘Why fix it if it ain’t broke’ has been another popular refrain. While I am loath to play God to laud over others’ opinions – although it would be fun – it seems hypocritical to me.

How can you scream blue murder at the bastard in black one minute then support him the next? Honestly, what pisses me off is how much the issue has been over-complicated. Let’s keep it simple; you either back referees with technology, or you don’t. If you back it, then be realistic; the system will need to evolve. I also am frustrated how it is so clearly flawed in its present state, but it clearly is the way forward. Lampard’s dipping volley against Germany eight years ago? It may not have changed the end result, but crucially, it could have. We’re talking the biggest stage of all here for christ’s sake.

The importance of matches now, be it financial, emotional or otherwise, is too great to leave clear errors strewn about. I cannot see how anyone can justify not having a system in place that removes clear mistakes. If you think human error creates debate, then you can fuck off to be honest – if the sport is not interesting enough for you without whinging about referees, then you ought to find another sport to watch.

The main bone of contention appears to be that it slows the game down. This is entirely justified to be fair; it spoils the spectacle when you wait over two minutes to find out, and in that time the pure joy of a key moment is suspended till confirmation arrives. You cannot take that away without ruining the game. Why, though, do we have to wait so long?

There is a nerve centre that houses a bank of screens from all games under VAR influence where dedicated officials constantly watch every moment and relay their findings to the referee. They advise the referee to either watch a pitchside monitor replay themselves, or inform the man in the middle of their own judgement.

Herein lies the first issue with the system itself in its present state. The delay in the game must be cut drastically, so why allow the referee to watch replays again? If there is a dedicated team whose sole job is to do this anyway, it seems an unnecessary step in my eyes. It has been reported it takes “30-40 seconds” to review each incident; fine, but that should be it. Once a goals has been scored and the players wheel away celebrating, by the time order has been remotely restored a decision should have been reached.

Here’s the thing: why is VAR being so over-thought in the first place? Technology in football has had a bad name already, but the only technology required, surely is one that has been around for decades: TV. How about this for a compromise between the millenials and the dinosaurs: have the team of VARs review every single decision without prompting, and limit their decision time to 30 seconds. You will keep a human element to the decision-making process, but will dramatically improve the success rate of decisions, which was the purpose in the first place.

Kelechi Iheanacho’s VAR-approved goal this week against Fleetwood – the first in English football – was largely a success story. He was onside, the goal stood, and most people went home happy. On Monday, IFAB (the sport’s governing body for rules) will convene to debate the future of VAR, and should take it as an example of the good VAR can do. One hopes they can take into account the shortcomings too.

Unless footballers are coated in some uber-advanced intelligent skin before playing, offside decisions will never be scientifically precise, but evolution is taking place. I wish the same could be said of some fans.