Max Freeman-Mills argues that attacks on experts have seeped into discussions of football’s latest tech experiment
“I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
“It doesn’t matter what the result is, VAR is making the best game in the world and the game we love so much degenerate into a farce. Just a mockery of the game.”
This year’s World Cup has at times risked being overshadowed, whether by diplomacy, human rights abuses or Love Island, a situation FIFA simply cannot countenance or afford. It was perhaps prescient of them, then, to supply journalists and armchair pundits the world over with a ready-made drum to beat once the tournament kicks off, by mandating the use of video assistant referees (VAR) at the tournament.
Over the course of this season VAR has gone from a hazy concept to concrete, rushed reality, and the debates around it have almost been left behind. Before its implementation, VAR divided observers along seemingly clear lines – are you for innovation, or a stone age luddite? Do you love the rough spirit of the game, or would you prefer to ultimately just watch simulations?
These battle-lines, of course, blurred into daftness the instant any focus was applied, and it became clear to less impassioned observers that one could be intrigued by VAR without advocating universal take-up. This was, sadly, not the tone of the media coverage in most quarters, however. As trials were held, for every Kelechi Iheanacho goal rightly ruled onside, we were confronted with the comparison of endless two-minute delays, redoubled refereeing mistakes and spectator confusion.
The unbearably smug Gianni Infantino’s claims that the system will work at the tournament have been drowned out in just the same manner as an expert pundit questioning the idea that a post-Brexit NHS will benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds per week.
These battle-lines, of course, blurred into daftness the instant any focus was applied, and it became clear to less impassioned observers that one could be intrigued by VAR without advocating universal take-up.
As in that other recent debate of scarcely equivalent importance, reason has been employed only by the bubble-resident metropolitan broadsheets, edging increasingly toward a default tone of weariness and bewilderment rather than outrage and venom. The red-tops, as is their wont, have taken a simpler approach, employing outrage when VAR obliges their narrative, and extreme scepticism when it obviously does not.
The potential statistical justification for its use, the particularities of how it will function, and the idea that a continually adaptable arrangement could be better than a simple “YES” or “NO” debate: these questions have been lost under the noise of proper football men complaining that laptop boffins are not going to take the beautiful game, not if they’re still breathing.
It is fair to say that the video system has had hiccoughs, and indeed hardly a smooth outing at any stage. Yet the media has been so slavishly ready for its mistakes that any successes have been lost in the fray.
At this stage, it feels farcical to decree whether VAR is definitely the way forward or not – it should be afforded a fair chance, and the opportunity to be developed properly. Giving dazed, untrained referees their first opportunity to explore it in Russia’s all-important group games is, unfortunately, a shockingly lazy way to engineer progress.