The grey areas of football’s rulebook were no clearer following Manchester United’s controversial last-gasp victory over Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday. theScore’s Daniel Rouse argues that VAR also sanitizes and therefore spoils our viewing experience.
The final whistle sounds in Sunderland. Pockets of Manchester United fans are daring to celebrate in the stands: they’ve snatched the 2011-12 Premier League title from the grasp of their rivals.
At the Etihad Stadium, some supporters are inconsolable or already on their way home. Others are furious, screaming at Manchester City shirts to pour forward and shoot from anywhere.
Sergio Aguero doesn’t listen to those instructions. Aguero drops to receive the ball from Nigel de Jong, turns, and plays it to the feet of Mario Balotelli. While Balotelli holds off Anton Ferdinand on the edge of the 18-yard box, Aguero continues his run and gets the ball back thanks to the Italian’s stretch and prodded pass. This is it. This is the last chance.
Aguero skips a lunge. Thwack.
The ground erupts. Aguero loses it. He whips off his shirt and is chased by his disbelieving teammates. City have ended 44 years of boardroom mismanagement, on-field mishaps, and even a relegation into the third tier in the most climatic and dramatic way possible – they have clinched their first title since 1968.
But then Aguero and his colleagues stop and turn to the referee. The Etihad Stadium falls silent. Amid the delirium, Mike Dean heard something in his ear. They’re going to video review. Put your celebrations on hold, lads.
Remove the stigma
There is almost a stigma about saying you’re against video assistant referees. You’re old fashioned. You like goalkeepers being assaulted by fat forwards and defenders playing through a concussion. You want long balls bypassing the midfield. You’re a dinosaur. You’re a Luddite. You probably aren’t nauseated by the thought of Tony Pulis managing your team.
It’s a sweeping generalization borne of ignorance and arrogance. It’s like saying everyone who supports Millwall is a hooligan. That’s patently not true. A vulgar minority ruin it for everybody else down The Den.
Not everyone who dislikes VAR is the kind of person who rues the influx of foreigners into their top domestic league. They just want football – for many the most joyful part of their existence – not to be tarnished. There are logical reasons for this fear.
There’s also the sense that being pro-VAR is the fashionable, progressive choice. The technology is there to use, so why not use it? There is money on the line and that’s the most important thing, after all. Why should people suffer such horrific injustices – like conceding an ever-so-slightly offside goal in the last minute – when we can flick back and Wite-Out the errors and ugly stuff?
Classic matches become just another game
June 22, 1986, at the Estadio Azteca.
Wounds from the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom are still raw as La Albiceleste and England emerge for their World Cup quarterfinal. Diego Maradona looks the angriest, like he’s seeking revenge for Margaret Thatcher’s troops recapturing the South Atlantic archipelago in June 1982. The nation’s pride is at stake. Only victory will do.
Six minutes after the interval, an English defender desperately spurns an Argentinian attack when he wildly boots the ball into the air. Thankfully the reassuring figure of Peter Shilton, who stands at six feet, is underneath it.
Except Maradona – all 5-foot-5 of him – scores.
If this happened during the 2018 installment of the World Cup, Maradona gets sent off. His blatant cheating by using his hand to score, inevitable protestation at being dismissed, and the sight of the tournament’s best player leaving the pitch in disgrace would’ve made great television.
But VAR would scribble out the important stuff.
The Goal of the Century that followed wouldn’t exist. How it started – when he jinked and spun away from Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid – would be gone, and the subsequent run that scorched Mexican earth and left disorientated pink-skinned men in his wake.
And the handball that sent Maradona back through the Azteca tunnel wouldn’t be named the Hand of God. It would just be an act of stupidity. A red card would’ve denied Maradona a World Cup that firmly established him among the sport’s greatest players.
Justice would triumph in the short term, yet one of football’s most crucial chapters would be sacrificed.
Tempering football’s joy
There appear to be two main arguments in favor of VAR: technology and justice.
Just because there’s technology available, it doesn’t mean it should be embraced. Take asbestos and Sony MiniDiscs, for example.
And do fans really want something that’s censored, and even further away from what we played as kids and try to play as adults? Joy should be an absolute priority in sports. Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s a hobby. Getting the decision right isn’t that important. Joy should beat justice every time.
In a relatively low-scoring sport, goals are the climax. Leaping over seats and hugging strangers in the stands, knocking over grandma’s vase in the sitting room, the beer-stained shirt and sore head from an evening in the pub. This is the pinnacle of football.
The intention of VAR was to correct clear and obvious errors, but that didn’t last. The video referees scour footage for the faintest offside or slightest shirt pull, and that doubt would have restrained the celebrations in the Etihad Stadium after that Aguero goal.
And with that, the joy of football is lessened.
VAR-football isn’t history being made, it’s history being redacted.