There are no bigger expansionists in the laws of football than those behind Var who see every foul-up and imperfection as an invitation to grab more territory for the control of those who think the game can and must be tamed by its technology.
This week Ifab, the international organisation that controls the laws of the game, proposed expanding the remit of the technology beyond the four key principles for which Var was launched in 2018. Now Ifab wants oversight for further aspects – free-kicks, corners, second yellow cards. This is the attitude one might expect of a governing body operating a perfect system, and yet – as we know – nothing could be further from the truth.
It has been another dismal week for Var, in the Champions League this time when no less than the World Cup referee Szymon Marciniak was sent to the monitor in Paris and gave a penalty that should never have been awarded. What happens to the agency of those officials in that lonely walk to the touchline? It seems to rob them of all confidence to stand by what they have witnessed for themselves at closer quarters than any other. Only a vanishingly small number have taken a second look and stuck with their original view.
The penalty for Paris Saint-Germain against Newcastle United’s Tino Livramento that night was a travesty. PSG might have deserved the draw for the dominance of their second half – but football is not the sum total of your near misses or your expected goals metric. Var had failed again – playing with the mind of one of Uefa’s best officials. Yet earlier the same day Ifab had proposed expanding Var’s remit.
The question to return to on these matters is the one that was asked before video assistant referees were introduced: what is it that Var was intended to do? That, by the letter of the much-rewritten Var protocol, was to eliminate clear and obvious errors. It was to be the referee’s friend: telling him that, for instance, he had sent off the wrong Arsenal player, in the case of Stamford Bridge in March 2014. Or that Thierry Henry had handled the ball in extra-time at the Stade de France against Ireland in 2009.
Simple questions, and asked only rarely. Not a licence to re-referee the game. “If I hear one person say that it doesn’t re-referee a game, I’ll explode mate, because that’s exactly what it’s doing.” That could only be avowed anti-Varist Ange Postecoglou talking this week. “It was brought in for clear and obvious, right?” he asked the room. “A clear and obvious error for me would be if all of us in this room saw something and go, ‘That’s definitely wrong’. At the moment it’s going with ‘the majority in this room say it’s wrong.’”
‘Var is a flawed method still trying to overreach itself’
This is the story of Var, a phenomenon now operating on the majority vote, and often not even gaining that. A flawed method still trying to overreach itself. It was launched in error and now, with the momentum unstoppable it wants to gobble up more of the game.
It should always have been limited to what the referee fraternity likes to call factual errors. In short, the objective and the obvious: a ball out of play. A foul either inside or outside the penalty area. Correctly identifying whether an offender is Kieran Gibbs or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Offside, although without the bolt-ons of deciding subjectively whether an offside player is interfering or not.
That way Var could have started small, won some trust and built from there. Instead it shot for the stars and ended up demolishing the neighbour’s garage. As was ably demonstrated the very day the Ifab annual meeting sought to extend its remit, Var cannot handle the remit it already has. Not even with, on the occasion of Tuesday night, the referee and Var to whom Fifa entrusted the World Cup final. But still Ifab wants Var to have more of the game, and it believes it can do so without causing any further delays.
A nonsense, of course, because every increment of the laws handed over to Var just gives the matchday Var more to check. The better policy would be to adjust the laws in order that, rather than expand the role of Var, they reduce it. Var is currently checking every goal for a handball, deliberate or otherwise, in the build-up or execution. It does so in order that it might disallow it. If Alejandro Garnacho’s brilliant overhead kick against Everton had happened to brush the fingernails of the Manchester United teenager, offering no advantage, and changing the trajectory not a single degree, then it would have been disallowed.
Instead, the lawmakers seek to respond to the pressure they feel from the perception of the game on television. Sin-bins are proposed to solve, among other things, a problem with dissent. But this fails to anticipate the consequences for a game which does not have the natural breaks of rugby union or other sports where the sin bin exists. Football needs simple laws which are understood easily and applied swiftly.
Once more it has to be said that the problem was not the errors of officials which have always existed in football ever since it was played by men called Cuthbert in footwear better suited to climbing mountains. The problem is the technological advance of television which has been able to highlight these errors immediately and in detail – and the game has caved to that pressure.
Terrified of the power of technology and the subsequent disapproval that the game’s authorities think those multiple angles and slow-mo replays will bring to the sport, it seeks to hand over ever more power to the technology. As ever, so much better to concentrate on solving the simple things, leaving the rest and accepting the game in its natural state – imperfections and all.