Frank Martin on VAR, Danny Murphy and the Socratic method

I watch football for spectacle, not to see Arsenal win. This is probably for the best. My fears that VAR would take the most spectacular injustices out of football have been largely allayed. Since the start of the 2019 / 2020 season, a week hasn’t passed without a VAR decision facing the derision of pundits across the country. Strangely, as much of that anger has been directed at the system’s accuracy as it has at its misuse, with many frustrated that millimetre margins are the basis of the system’s correct decisions. In particular, offside rulings under VAR have begun to amount to what is referred in football’s ever-millenarian language as a ‘crisis’.

The height of this recent crisis came when Liverpool played Aston Villa at the beginning of November. Sadio Mane swept the ball across the face of the six-yard box and Roberto Firmino trod the ball down into the Villa goal before seeing it ruled out by the linesman, who had raised his flag at what looked like an extremely close decision. VAR was summoned by the referee, raising his finger to his ear and, after a  period of incongruous post-goal loitering, it was confirmed that Firmino was offside by the length of one armpit.

This decision in turn gave rise to two questions. The first quotidian but juridically important. Given that a player cannot be offside by a part of their body with which they cannot play the ball – i.e. their arm – can their armpit be the infringing body part? The second question is where my interest begins and is the finest example of that unique footballing intersection of the Socratic method and Danny Murphy that I increasingly find is why I watch at all. That question was this: is the armpit itself a thing, or rather the absence of a thing; anatomy or lacuna?

Where VAR has given us entertainingly minuscule grounds for anger, it has in the process removed the most spectacular errors of adjudication, and for this we should all be saddened.

VAR was meant to excise from the game any contention, but it has instead led us – likely inevitably – to the above kind of epistemic discussion that I enjoy watching regularly take place between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher for three hours on one of Sky Sports eleven channels. There is a lot of potential here. Next week, Graeme Souness’ vapid fury at hearing that Martin Atkinson thinks Gaëten Bong’s thumb is merely a fifth finger rather than a substantively different digit. These are issues I never knew football was missing, but I am glad they are here.

And yet, for all of the laudable bitterness VAR has created, I still find myself yearning for the simpler days of pre-VAR controversy: where forwards could be five yards offside, centre backs could be sharp-elbowed, and where Nigel de Jong could have a career as a footballer.

Isn’t there something delightful in the thought of getting away with a crime, or, perhaps more strangely, the righteous indignation we feel when wronged? Think what this watchful authoritarianism would have done to Maradona’s Hand of God or Henry’s cupped palm that prevented Ireland from going to the 2010 World Cup. England would have gone out in the semis and Ireland might have notched a single point in a 0-0 group stage game against Algeria, but at what cost? A country’s footballing folklore – a nation’s unifying grievance.

Where VAR has given us entertainingly minuscule grounds for anger, it has in the process removed the most spectacular errors of adjudication, and for this we should all be saddened.

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