To the naked eye – not only mine but also those of the referee and his assistant – it looked as if a defender had met a cross from the left with a glanced clearance off his head and behind for a corner. But the TV evidence told a different story. Jorge Guagua, veteran centre back of Ecuadorian side Emelec, had missed his attempt to head the ball, and had instead swatted it behind the line with his hand. The attackers of the opposing side, Flamengo of Brazil, were indignant. This was right at the start of a crunch game in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. They should have been awarded a penalty. A corner was no consolation.
VAR, the video referee, is only used in the closing stages of the competition. And, as explained here last month, it will not be introduced in domestic Brazilian football this year. This has led to howls of media protest. The excellent journalist Andre Kfouri is one of VAR’s staunchest advocates. After Flamengo’s non-penalty he took to twitter to ironically announce “chapter 3,227,758 of the series about how VAR will ruin football.”
Capítulo 3.227.758 da série "o VAR vai acabar com o futebol 😫😫😫😫". Emelec x Flamengo; mão na bola dentro da área. Árbitro: mal posicionado. Assistente: visão encoberta. Primeiro replay: pênalti claro.
— André Kfouri (@KfouriAndre) March 15, 2018
To many on this side of the Atlantic, this is a cut and dried issue. VAR is progress. Only a troglodyte would be against it.
There is just a chance, though, that this view is so strong – especially in media circles – because as yet they have had almost no contact with the procedure. Because there is a striking level of discontent and even rejection among many who have seen VAR work at close quarters – almost half of Germany’s players, for example, would prefer it to be scrapped.
Clearly, a large part of the problem can be put down to teething troubles. It will take time to work out how the video resource might best be utilized.
But there are also deeper caveats. Not all decisions are as black and white as Jorge Guagua’s unseen hand ball. Many decisions are questions of interpretation. They are marginal – and as such, there is no definite right or wrong answer.
It is entirely fanciful, then, to believe that the introduction of VAR will do away with arguments about refereeing decisions. It will merely change the forum for discontent – instead of swearing at the man in the middle, fans will vent their scorn on the one in the video box. And since coaches and media have a vested interest in stirring up controversy, marginal decisions will continue to create stormy debate.
Decisions seen by some as unsatisfactory will still be taken. Only now they will take much longer. This issue is clearly crucial to the success of the VAR project. Statistics have been wheeled out to show that waiting for VAR decisions takes up less time than waiting for throw-ins. But this is not relevant. We experience time in relative terms. The delay before a throw is a natural lull, part of the longeurs of the game. On the other hand, the moment when a goal appears to be have been scored is football at its most emotional, a memorable outpouring of noise and passion – but one that is clearly undermined by a lengthy hold up afterwards while someone watching a screen decides if it should stand.
The English writer and radio host Danny Baker has thought long and hard on the effect of all this. “What numbs the crowd,” he concludes, “is the idea that now THEY aren’t the people at the event, they are just watching something that is being judged and relayed from some remote office. Supporters are now just extras at their own event……. VAR is the football equivalent of the bore who sits behind you at the cinema who, during a really exciting film, says ‘Hmmm. This film is set in 1983, but they didn’t actually introduce that rolling stock on the railways til 1987.”
Is this, then, how the debate about VAR will proceed? Trainspotters and pedants to one side, old style fans to the other? One side chasing a panacea of accuracy, the other willing to sacrifice some precision in the name of emotion? The issue is not going to go away. It cannot be swatted behind the line the way that Jorge Guagua did last Wednesday night.