If a ball hits the back of the net, and VAR wasn’t around to see it, did it even happen? Increasingly, it feels as though fans are being polarised by this piece of tech, and are either leaning toward a growing sense of doom for the fans, players, and the beautiful game itself, or are embracing optimism – even in the face of VAR-induced setbacks on the pitch – and are quickly growing used to a game that is becoming increasingly shaped by technology.
The former group – the naysayers – represent a sizeable portion of the UK’s football fans. To be sure, very few teams have managed to escape the objective brutality of the video assistant referee in recent months. One of the most notable examples of this happened, of course, back in the UEFA Champions League of 2019, when a presumed win for Manchester City was turned on its head in favour of Spurs who were, en masse, already lamenting their loss.
Examples of VAR’s ability to turn the traditional course of events on its head, however, are growing increasingly common – to the point where it is almost rare to encounter a game that is not in some way altered or turned around by the virtual referee.
Of course, as with any major change to a significant and much-loved sport, there will be friction; there will be teething problems, resistance from wrong-footed fans and viewers for whom the rug has been swept out from under their feet at the wrong moment – and, of course, players, for whom the view is very different than it is for the VAR and, by and large, the spectators at the sides of the pitch.
But VAR has now been a regular staple in football for nigh-on five years, and yet it seems as though this feature is only growing more divisive, rather than gradually turning more and more of us onto the side of least resistance.
Technological Enhancement in Sport is Never Guaranteed
It would be reductive to assume that nothing more than the passage of time is needed to take VAR from a resisted harbinger of evil to a run of the mill and widely appreciated mainstay of the football pitch.
While VAR for football is unique in its own right, there are plenty of examples of technology being utilised to transform a sport, and bring it into the twenty-first century.
In the sport of professional poker, for instance, the massively popular site GGPoker.co.uk has managed to usher in a transformation so effectively that such renowned names as Daniel Negreanu, Felipe Ramos, Dan Bilzerian, Fedor Holz and Bertrand Grospellier have pursued the game into the digital realm. This transformation may, on the surface, seem unlikely; in a game so vulnerable to immoral gameplay and cheating, allowing players to log in and play for incredibly high stakes from private and geographically disparate locations seems a significant risk. And yet, the site has facilitated this move with no discernible friction from the players or fans.
Similarly, in Rugby, TMO (Television Match Official) has existed as a fundamental part of the game in some form or another for a little over two decades. While it, too, experienced some teething issues in the very early days, its assimilation within the sport is definitive and well-received by fans and players alike.
Does it Need to Change?
In a similar vein, many have suggested that VAR should take a few lessons from the success of TMO. Namely, by breaking down the anonymity that surrounds VAR and appointing a human ‘figurehead’ (in rugby, known as the Rugby TMO) to essentially give a voice to the decisions made by VAR.
What’s more, the decision ought to be made and revealed, commenters argue, much more quickly. The heartfelt frustrations of fans directed toward VAR are understandable given the delay that often occurs between action and result – an issue that never plagued football prior to the rollout of VAR – and the privileged position at the side of the pitch suddenly means nothing at all. Live sports are beloved for the immediacy, the excitement and sense of community between other fans and the players themselves and, at this point in time, VAR represents something of a blockage between live spectatorship and the actual results of the game.