It’s a goal! Oh, no, it’s not! It’s a handball! It’s a penalty! No it’s not, it brushed his arm!
Shouty players jostle the referee. He makes the gesture of a big TV square. Then it’s a private viewing on the touchline video. More argument, gesticulation – and a 40,000-strong crowd in full war cry.
Welcome to the high-tech world of the Video Assistant Referee System (VAR) – the biggest talking point of our times since ... well, since Ronaldo wasn’t sent off. This is the electronic six-camera video system, introduced at the world’s largest sporting event, that was meant to put an end to goalmouth muddle and referee error. The pundits were united – what a vast improvement to the game it would make. No more second guessing. No more wrong calls. No more chants at the referee: “You should have gone to SpecSavers!” Interminable TV studio disputation and punditry would be silenced at last!
But it seems to have left us with as many questions as answers. And there are two questions in particular worth exploring.
First, if the VAR system is so good and has worked to flag up fouls and bad behaviour in sporting fixtures, why limit its wondrous benefits to football matches? Should it not now have much wider application?
And second – and altogether more searching – should we be seeking to eliminate doubt and error in football refereeing at all? Are such incidents not a natural part of the game?
But first, some fun. What a major breakthrough it would be if VAR could be introduced into the world of politics. The minute a people’s representative is accused at Westminster or Holyrood of a blatant U-turn, contradiction or “terminological inexactitude”, the Speaker or Presiding Officer could immediately halt proceedings and signal that TV square gesture to a bank of six techies at the back of the chamber.
Precious seconds tick by. Opposition parties are yelling their heads off. Prime Minister Theresa May has just said higher taxes may be needed to fund the NHS. Blatant U-turn! Or Jeremy Corbyn has uttered yet another confusing new line on his party’s position on Brexit. Government frontbenchers are on their feet.
The video replay system is dialed up. Yes, there it is! The PM saying she is opposed to tax increases! And the replay system is in overdrive running through Corbyn’s previous statements on Brexit.
For Mrs May, it’s a definite yellow card. And for Jeremy Corbyn, a double yellow – but he’s not sent off. Pandemonium! Studio pundits break out with more yelling and shouting. There are calls for the parliament to introduce a rugby union-style ten minutes in the Sin Bin. Or better still, ten days! Who would not wish politicians to be brought to heel with a VAR of this sort? Technology has made instant recall possible, exposing their contradictions to full public view and the offending party to disciplinary action.
But would it really work as well as intended? Certainly in several World Cup games over the past fortnight, it has fuelled as much controversy as it was supposed to eliminate. No set of sporting laws can ever be wholly objective or free from interpretative dispute. Despite the availability of replays – repeated several times from different angles – there remain debates about penalty incidents. Decisions still come down to human interpretation.
In rugby, it can be hard for the video camera to show in a try-line scrummage whether the ball has been touched down. And in World Cup football, the VAR system has failed to quell disputes about whether a player has deliberately played the ball with his arm or whether the ball simply struck his arm in flight.
Into how much microscopic detail must a camera go to determine whether a player was offside, or whether in rugby there was a forward pass? Even after watching a disputed incident several times, the experts in the TV studio can remain divided. Are we not forgetting something: that this is, after all, a game where chance plays an inevitable part? What is sporting about a video dial-up that can halt the flow of the game for three or four minutes? Carry on like this and we’ll be needing vast satellite telescope dishes on the touchline.
And through all this, one senses an undermining of the authority of the referee. Almost every controversial incident now causes players to crowd round and intimidate the ref into a video replay. The referee’s decision, it seems, is no longer final. Who cannot fondly remember the wonderful admonition of rugby referee Nigel Owens to a player who disputed his call: “Good afternoon. I don’t think we’ve met before but I’m the referee here and I’m in charge.“
Even if sophisticated electronic gadgetry cannot eliminate all doubts and errors in a football game, should it have a place at all? I remember discussing this point over dinner with a distinguished Scottish football referee. His argument was that wrong calls were an inevitable part of the game. He struggled for a word and then found it: “Appurtenances”. That had me reaching for the dictionary.
Now he has a point. Though the word “appurtenance” is more commonly found in legal/property agreements, it is broadly defined as an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or style of activity. In other words, they are part of the game – indeed, you might say, even part of its attraction.
You cannot eliminate human error. As one expert put it: “Human error and performance are two sides of the same coin: ‘human error’ mechanisms are the same as ‘human performance’ mechanisms; performance later categorised as ‘error’ is done so in hindsight, therefore actions later termed ‘human error’ are actually part of the ordinary spectrum of human behaviour.”
Over to you Gary Lineker. Perhaps he should put it to his panel of existentialist philosophers with their fingers on the replay button. Muddled goalmouth incidents and a ref’s occasional wrong call are part and parcel of the game and we should not try to eliminate them. Just as in politics, muddle, contradiction and obfuscation are rife. Why? Because, as in football, error and misjudgement are just part of the human game.