The fight to make soccer less fun

The Video Assisted Referee is transforming soccer. It is also revealing some of the deepest contradictions about the ways we think about law, power, and politics.

The fight to make soccer less fun

The Video Assisted Referee is transforming soccer. It is also revealing some of the deepest contradictions about the ways we think about law, power, and politics.

Deep into injury time in the quarter final of a match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur during last season’s Champions League, something truly remarkable happened. It had been a frenetic, see-sawing game that, over two legs, was tied 4-4. Spurs, by virtue of having scored more away goals over the two games, would qualify for the next round if they could only hold out for two more minutes. Suddenly Tottenham, who was desperately attempting to keep hold of the ball, lost possession. Seconds later, the ball fell to Manchester City’s prolific winger Raheem Sterling. Spurs players watched in horror as Sterling, half falling, half already celebrating, placed the ball perfectly in the bottom corner of the goal, sealing victory. There ensued an explosive, primal celebration at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium. Fans were pouring onto the field. Spurs players had collapsed. The game was all but finished.

At the same time Sterling was wheeling away to celebrate, footage of the goal was being beamed into a small room in a business park 200 miles away. There, a group of officials had spotted something. In the build-up to the goal, one of Man City’s players, Sergio Aguero, had been marginally offside, something that both the referee and his assistants has missed. This information was relayed to a speaker in the referee’s ear. By that time, almost a minute had passed since the goal and the stadium was still an incoherent frenzy of celebration. In the midst of the roar the referee raised his hand and then blew his whistle, abolishing the goal.

There followed a sickening silence, in which tens of thousands of fans in the ground, and millions more at home, adjusted to a new reality. The ultimate enforcer of soccer’s rules was no longer the referee on the pitch, but had become instead a bundle of human and technological systems that spanned the country, coordinated by distant satellites.

The Video Assisted Referee (VAR) is transforming modern soccer. It is also revealing some of the deepest contradictions about the ways that we presently think about law, power, and politics. VAR is the outcome of a lust for automation and an obsession with fairness over equality and precision over narrative. In this sense it is a product of our times and has a familiar epistemology — that human error, once a staple of controversy and debate in soccer, can be made extinct by technology.

Under VAR, any major refereeing decision (one that results, for example, in a goal, a penalty or a red card), is subject to being overturned by a small committee of officials who have access to dozens of cameras recording the game in real time. If the committee feels that the referee has missed something, it can intervene. This follows the logic of similar systems in other sports attempt to use technology to arbitrate calls with absolute precision, such as “hawkeye” in tennis or the Decision Review System in cricket.

Over the last few years, VAR has been one of the biggest talking points among pundits and fans, a source of bitter and unresolved debate.

Since it was first piloted in a handful of games in second tier leagues in the United States three years ago, VAR has come to feel like an inevitability. In 2018, the technology made its debut in the men’s World Cup, where the confusing and deflating spectacle of goals being disallowed, minutes after they were scored, became familiar. The new English Premier League season, now its second week, will feature VAR at every game for the first time.

Over the last few years, VAR has been one of the biggest talking points among pundits and fans, a source of bitter and unresolved debate. Its supporters argue that the technology has the potential to eradicate bias and match-fixing, that it could create consistency across the game at different levels and geographies, and allow fans and journalists to focus on the game being played rather than re-litigating every referee decision. Its detractors argue that the long, confusing delays generated by the system are detrimental to the fans in the ground, who are often the last to find out what is happening. Because soccer is a game that hinges on just one or two spectacular moments — a goal, a penalty, a red card — some have argued that VAR dulls the dopamine rush of these events as fans and players become aware that a referee’s decisions could be overturned at any moment.

In its short life, VAR has already produced some spectacular controversies. In a 2017 game in the German league between Mainz and Freiburg, VAR awarded a retrospective penalty after the referee had blown his whistle for halftime. The referee had to go into the dressing rooms and summon the players back onto the field for the penalty to be taken. Stranger still, in the most recent Copa America semifinal between Brazil and Argentina, a possible penalty for Argentina was overlooked by the referee and was not deferred to VAR. Seconds later, Brazil scored at the other end of the pitch. It was alleged that VAR was unable to intervene because of technical issues resulting from communication interference by Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s security team.

Before VAR, referees were the sovereign enforcers of a fixed set of rules. After VAR, the rules themselves have become suspect, shown to be just as indeterminate and grounded in interpretation as when they were the prerogative of a single individual. Should goalkeepers who save penalties be punished if they were fractionally off their line the second it was taken? What is the body’s “natural” position if a ball strikes a hand in the penalty area? Should a goal still stand if an errant shoelace or a waft of hair was offside? Like Heisenberg and the atom, the ability to examine soccer at a quantum level has opened up a void of imprecision.

VAR represents the belief that the law is blind, and that it can speak for itself without interpretation.

A glimpse of the anarchy that VAR threatens to unleash came during this summer’s Women’s World Cup in a game between Cameroon and England. In the first half, England’s Ellen White scored a goal, which was ruled offside by the referee on the pitch, only for that decision to be overturned (correctly) by VAR. Cameroon’s players appear to have caught a glimpse of the decision system on the stadium’s TV from an angle which suggested that White was offside. During five minutes of chaotic protests it appeared, briefly, that the Cameroon players would refuse to continue. The expertise of the individual referee on the pitch was no longer sovereign, and could no longer be appealed to. Rather, responsibility for the decision belonged with a room full of strangers 150 miles away from where the game was being played. The entire system was thrown into disrepute, and all the Cameroon players could do was walk away from the game itself.

VAR represents the belief that the law is blind, and that it can speak for itself without interpretation. It falsely locates power with systems rather than individuals. Its contradictions, however, run even deeper than this.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of liberal political thought is the belief that politics can be autonomous — that democracy can be insulated from inequalities that persist in, say, the economy or in the family. Large scale inequalities produced by racism, patriarchy or capitalism can be justified (even if reluctantly so) by the idea that the rule of law, human rights and democratic institutions theoretically allow everyone the same opportunities, incentives, and punishments.

Critical theorists have long been aware of the ways that liberal democracies have, for centuries, underwritten their idealism with enormous amounts of violence at their margins, whether in prisons, in imperial hinterlands, or in unregulated workplaces. These critiques are as old Marx, who demonstrated how the ruthless exploitation of industrial workers was perfectly compatible with their right to buy and sell their labor where they chose — “between equal rights” he wrote, “force decides.”

Though VAR, in the grand scheme of global politics, is not that consequential, it perfectly encapsulates this contradiction at the heart of liberal politics. Is there any better example of our present historical moment than an automated system that strives for perfect fairness in a match between a team worth billions, backed by a petro-state, and a small, community owned club facing bankruptcy?

It is not hard to find inequalities or injustices in modern soccer. Look at Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, two clubs that are owned as public-relations projects by Gulf State sovereign wealth funds who spend accumulated billions on players and infrastructure and sit atop a lake of oil, the sporting face of a carbon economy which poses an existential threat to all life on earth. Soccer is also profoundly structured by inequalities of gender and race. Black players are still subject to torrents of racist abuse (incidents of which increased by 43 percent in England last season) and clumsy stereotyping by white commentators and journalists. Meanwhile, despite advances in the women’s game, women continue to be paid only a tiny fraction of their male counterparts even in the U.S., where the women’s team has achieved substantially more success on the global stage.

Soccer, in other words, is embedded in the politics in which we live, and is a site where economic, racial, and gendered inequalities are deftly reproduced. Just like the world around us, soccer is becoming fairer, at the same time as it is becoming more unequal. As a result of VAR, refereeing decisions may become more and more exact, while soccer becomes less and less meaningful as a competition. VAR seeks to redress injustice, but is looking in all the wrong places.

Elite soccer has, in recent years, been subject to an undertow of disenchantment. The proliferation of evermore complex statistics to measure performances and predict results has, with the aid of online gambling, sought to iron out contingency and narrative from the game. With pressures to replace national leagues with elite, continent-wide super leagues and to play domestic games in different stadiums across the world, technology is changing what it means to be a fan of a team — creating pockets of support for obscure lower division English teams in places like Shanghai, Jakarta, and New York. Even the league system itself — an equal number of games, a regulated window of transfers, set points for wins, draws and losses — resembles the fantasies of economists who believe that perfect markets can be constructed by institutions.

At the same time, these universalizing tendencies have run up against real-world limits, whether it’s the irrational outbursts of narrative or momentum that defy statistical outcomes, or whether it’s structural inequalities of finance, or uneven geographical development that is not immediately visible on the pitch.

In the coming years VAR will serve only to intensify these contradictions. As it becomes more entrenched in the game, let it be a reminder that both soccer and politics need to be remade from the ground up. In both of these domains, a fairer enforcement of the laws of the game will leave deeper inequalities untouched.

Sam Wetherell is a historian of modern Britain based at the University of York.