Three years ago, goal-line technology flummoxed Jonathan Pearce at the 2014 World Cup. France were leading ten-man Honduras when, just after half-time, a Karim Benzema shot cannoned off the far post and crept over the line before being scooped back to safety by the Honduran goalkeeper.
It has become infamous. Commentating is a see-and-point business and Pearce was in the tricky position of having to react instantly to what was ultimately a glitch. Unlike today, when only the point at which the ball has actually crossed the line is shown on the stadium screens, Brazil witnessed Hawkeye at its most opaque: first showing Benzema’s shot nestled against the post (and on the line), before then revealing a legitimate goal.
“Does goal-line technology work or doesn’t it?”
By virtue of having been around for a long time, Pearce was an assumed luddite and, reliably, social media had its way with him. It was unfair. His hyperbole (“the bigger controversy of the 2014 World Cup”) was certainly misplaced and, with GLT having been used in the Premier League for the whole of the prior season, he should already have been sold in its merits, but he was understandably deceived by some clumsy functionality.
What that day did reveal was the necessity of technological clarity. For a long time, there was blanket objection to Hawkeye. Even restricting its involvement to goal-line decisions would, its detractors stressed, create intolerable breaks in the flow of a game. Football wasn’t like tennis, they insisted, or cricket, rugby, or any of the American sports, and to interrupt its continuity would be a crime against the game.
Not so: it works extremely well. It’s been smartly finessed and its watch/referee dynamic is slick and unobtrusive. But most importantly of all, everybody understands how it works: the ball crosses the line, the official receives an alert, and then a goal is given.
In contrast, the recent Confederations Cup was played under a fog of ambiguity and, by the end of the tournament, the calls for the use of video replay had quietened almost completely. Not unreasonably, either, because VAR created mild chaos during its senior debut Russia. Decisions which should have been overturned weren’t, those which shouldn’t have been were, and clearly captured disciplinary offences somehow escaped punishment. Rather than long-desired clarity and consistency, the result was an additional layer of vaguery – and one which came with long, unscheduled delays to the game.
The obvious difference between football’s first foray into a digital world and its second is that adjudicating one task is far easier than the other. A football crossing a painted line is a binary and literal situation which doesn’t rely on any sort of interpretation; it either did or it didn’t. Conversely, judging incidents which occur elsewhere on the pitch (i.e. not between two fixed points) is naturally far harder and, owing to their nature, very much depend on human interpretation. At present, the VAR may adjudicate on any incidents involved in goals being scored, red cards being shown, penalties being awarded or cases of mistaken identity. Across that range there is clearly a need for interpretation and, if continued at future tournaments, the variables within the sport will prevent VAR from ever cleansing it entirely of its controversy. The reasonable parts of footballing society never expected a perfect solution, though, they just wanted something which minimised the capacity for grave injustice.
The system employed in Russia didn’t appear to tackle that problem – worse, its processes where overly complex and flawed in their lack of transparency. It was a muddle. Football’s popularity depends on its simplicity and so allowing faceless officials to make curious decisions based on a nebulous criteria was never going to be well received. Crowds want to shout, swear and celebrate, but they’d rather cry than sit in baffled silence.
Football doesn’t seem to understand that and, irritatingly, it doesn’t allow itself to be guided from outside, either.
In both codes of rugby for instance, the television audience can not only watch the replays as they’re being checked, they can often also hear the officials’ deliberations at the same time – has a ball been grounded, has a player remained in the field of player etc. In Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), the VAR equivalent – “The Bunker” – is not only fully microphoned, but also posts rulings to its own Twitter account:
— NRL Bunker (@NRLBunker) July 8, 2017
The example above is slightly contentious, but that is entirely the point: those watching at least understood why the decision was made even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it. The effort to involve the fans in the process is integral.
That “involvement” would seem to be the missing ingredient. If football is to employ a full-time replay system at its summit, it should be looking to learn from what has worked elsewhere. All sports are admittedly different but, actually, there’s little emotional variety across the respective fans: some come from different places and contrasting cultures, but the act of watching a team and being a supporter is largely the same; they respond internally to the good and bad parts of performance and arbitration in much the same way. Football is certainly different, but it’s not special: if it wants to evolve in this direction, it has to be aware of isolating those that these developments purportedly serve.
Currently, VAR is the NRL Bunker’s polar opposite. For whatever reason, the machinations occur in the darkness; whether sat in a stadium seat or on a sofa, the supporter is kept figuratively at arm’s length. Essentially, it just replaces the old discontent over referees not being interviewed after games with a more modern grievance: it’s another curtain of secrecy which, for whatever reason, the public is forced to tolerate. As the game’s legislators discovered to their cost in Russia, if seemingly incorrect decisions are made without any justification, all the irritations that the system was designed to cure metastasise and the perception of incompetence actually grows.
Whether it’s to be adopted universally is a separate issue, but if it is then the processes upon which it leans must be different. For Jonathan Pearce in 2014, see every supporter in the world in 2017; badly used or poorly explained technology is much worse than having no technology at all.