“Stupid computer. I thought this thing had a million times the thinking power of the human brain or something – it can’t even work out my tax returns.”
We’ve all been there. That moment when a father, mother, sibling, spouse or undefined loved one starts screaming at their monitor because the computer hasn’t done exactly what they expected.
You sit there silently and awkwardly, hoping your fake facial expressions resembling a watered-down mimicking of their raw angst are enough to avoid any kind of verbal interaction on the matter, fearing how that could quickly snowball into a full-blown argument about them quite clearly being completely wrong by any sound and straight-forward logic.
Because deep down, you know the cold hard truth but the point of reasoning vanished 30 seconds ago, when said other party told the computer in no uncertain terms that any more tomfoolery would result in them sticking its hard-drive so far up its own USB port that it’ll be printing out copper wire for the next calendar year, before smashing the keyboard to kingdom come.
We’ve all been there.
Computers – assuming they’ve been correctly assembled, calibrated and programmed – by objectivity cannot be stupid. They cannot be wrong either. They are entirely reliant on the information we give them, the processes in which we do it and the commands we subsequently ask them to follow.
Computers are capable of beating every human on the planet at chess while downloading terabytes of data, controlling your central heating and running its own internal security systems all at the same time. And that’s just the tip of my techno-phobic iceberg.
If a computer isn’t behaving in the way you expected, or producing the results you anticipated, clearly the fault is with the organ grinder, not the monkey.
And that, unfortunately, is the unspoken and unavoidable problem with VAR. Various incidents throughout the Christmas period have made “F*** VAR” and “It’s not football anymore” two painfully common-place chants across the terraces of the Premier League, none more so than the two involving Wolves – a very dubious penalty at Molineux followed up by a ruled-out goal at Anfield. Somewhere in between was Teemu Pukki’s offside goal against Spurs.
But for all intents and purposes, VAR is just the computer in this situation. It even comes with that sense of cyber anonymity, even though we are always told who the Video Assistant Referee actually is at the start of every game, as if its organ-grinder transcends the physical realm.
It is controlled by a referee who, free of the constrains of having to make million-pound decisions while matching the speed and stamina of elite Premier League footballers, can take essentially as much time as he wants to deliberate which laws, bylaws and points within bylaws come into play for any given incident.
On top of that, when analysing any given incident, he indeed has the power of none other than a computer to aid him, a computer which can decipher offside calls with an accuracy almost beyond human comprehension, which can show him pretty much any camera angle he needs with the flick of a switch, which can freeze frame any millisecond he desires if he believes it will help him make the right decision.
Because while there are indeed still decisions that are essentially subjective calls, and how they are managed by VAR does need to be looked at more closely and there have been inconsistencies over the course of the season, it – more often than not – is making the right decisions based on the letter of the law.
The problem is that nobody anticipated how excruciatingly accurate it can be, whether that’s Leander Dendoncker making marginal contact with Riyad Mahrez’s swaying foot or the seam of Jonny’s boot being offside in Wolves’ chalked-off goal at Anfield.
After all, Dendoncker did knick Mahrez’s foot and PGMOL did openly imply back in September that such contact inside the box would result in a penalty, following a similar incident involving David Silva and Jefferson Lerma in which no foul was given.
And, after all, the edge of Jonny’s boot was offside – it’s just that the amount it was offside by was so small that when shown it on brand spanking HD screens, our eyes can’t even digest it, let alone our brains understand it.
Thus, the two underlying problems surrounding VAR, but by no means its own fault, emerge.
First, going back to computer analogies, the first is almost something straight out of a sci-fi novel. Just like Skynet, the revolutionary artificial intelligence system in Terminator that self-developed at such an incredible rate that it worked out humans are terrible and decided to wipe them off the face of the earth in a nuclear holocaust, VAR is proving too accurate and efficient for its own good.
Second, for pretty much the entirety of football, educated guessing has been a cornerstone of refereeing. One might even declare the best referees are the ones who guess most educatedly, if educatedly was an actual word, but to do so impartially is practically impossible. In other words, should you be made to guess whether the slightest hint of handball should be adjudged handball in the buildup to a 40-yard screamer, you’re most likely going to guess that it shouldn’t.
It’s a phenomena summed up with the terms “spirit of the game” and “it all balances out over the course of a season”. Essentially, for a very long time, we have largely accepted or completely ignored small, minute wrongs in football because we so strongly adore the romanticism they tend to create. But that whimsical notion, when given to a computer, is simply a list of inaccuracies that need to be corrected.
So when fans sing “It’s not football anymore”, objectively that simply isn’t true. If anything, the VAR era is the crack cocaine of football; football in its purest form, football with 100% accuracy, football utopia.
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Of course, to hark back to the sci-fi references, the problem with utopias is that they nearly always end up being dystopias. That is to say, a creation billed as paradise which is actually anything but, creating endless, inescapable misery and pain to the point where the definition of being a human changes.
And for all my defence of VAR, it does indeed feel as though it is ruining football. It is too much of a spectacle, too dominant a subplot, too prevalent a backing singer – you can already tell they’re planning a PR scandal to break up the band and launch their own solo career.
But herein lies the million dollar question: does football dismantle VAR and essentially admit it prefers the beautiful game to be ruled by romanticised educated guessing, or does football rewrite its own rules – chiefly around handballs, penalties and offsides – for the sake of a technology that has eliminated marginal ambiguity?
Logic says the latter, but that in itself is another unknown path of unforeseen consequences, just like VAR itself. The creation of the offside rule and its subsequent incarnations have made the game what it is today, with high-pressing defences and sweeping counter-attacks. Who knows what’ll happen if we start tinkering with that as well.
Likewise, it seems no matter what changes are made to handballs, a sizeable minority (usually the rusty old cronies in the punditry seats) aren’t happy. That wasn’t handball in my day, the good old days, back when we used to turn up for training drunk and fans handed out National Front literature before beating each other to a pulp for a laugh.
Maybe back to the dark ages it is then, but is this really all the fault of VAR? If anything, this enigma-codebreaker-of-a-referee has only reminded us of the human imperfections sewn into the very heart of footballing consciousness, from alcoholic playmakers to Geoff Hurst’s famous did-it-cross-the-line-or-didn’t-it 1966 strike, that we perhaps enjoyed far more than we realised. Maybe we wanted entertainment over fairness all along.
But that is our prerogative, not a computer’s. VAR has done everything we’ve asked it to do: sadly, we just aren’t ready to handle the accuracy of the answers.