As FIFA has rolled out Video Assistant Referee (VAR) during the Confederations Cup this month, the debate has often centered around the larger role of technology at the center of the matches. The problem with VAR is not a problem of technology, but rather that it is a solution in search of a problem.
Skynet and the best robot XI
For many of VARs opponents, the source of discomfort is the creeping of digital technologies into soccer’s gameplay. There seems to be a fear of a slippery slope where soccer becomes so subjected to cameras, screens, and microchips that the actual play of 22 men or women becomes marginalized in its own display.
Perhaps the most entertaining take on technology comes from Ian Wright, who fears we will need Arnold Schwarzenegger to come from the future to fight our video cyborg overlords.
Favorite VAR take so far, from Ian Wright on FS1 pic.twitter.com/ZTqkuNHIPk
— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) June 20, 2017
Wright is being hyperbolic, but represents a particular attitude toward digital technology’s growing inclusion into the game. And he’s not completely wrong. Once we took the leap into goal-line technology, VAR was not far behind.
But this stems from an over-simplification of what technology is; technology is not just computers, but any sort of non-human extension of human action. The pen and paper a referee pulls from his or her pocket to jot down a yellow card, the number board to signal substitutions, and wireless communication between referees — all of these are ways in which we use technology to extend the ability of our referees.
“If in the long term it brings what it is supposed to bring — more justice to the game — then we’ll get used to it.”
-Juan Antonio Pizzi
I’ve made a semantic case, I know, but it’s to draw our attention to the important question of technology. Technologies are tools that solve specific problems. The pen and paper assists memory, the number board speeds up substitutions, and the radios increase communication. What does VAR do?
For Chile’s head coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi (who had a goal rightfully disallowed against Cameroon), VAR is the champion of justice. As he told reporters after the match (auto-video play warning), “If in the long term it brings what it is supposed to bring — more justice to the game — then we’ll get used to it.”
FIFA President Giovanni Infantino was more understated about VAR, but no less a cheerleader: “We have seen how video assistance has helped referees to make the correct decisions. This is what VAR is all about.”
If the hope is to make soccer a “just” game, then we may as well pack it all in now. Soccer is interesting in part because of its injustices: the improbable goal against the run of play, the deflected own goal, or missing the goal by an inch margin. These often get discussed and relived as much as the beautiful moments.
This isn’t to say that we should embrace injustice. When we can change rules or incorporate technology to make the game better, we certainly should try. However, even the phrase “make the game better” is besotted in subjective interpretation. Making the game better requires identifying a specific problem and looking for a realistic and simple solution to fix that problem.
Take the case of goal-line technology. The problem is that some goals are incorrectly ignored because the referee cannot properly see that the ball has gone over the line. What is or is not a goal is clear: has the ball crossed the goal line? The only question is the referee’s ability to track the ball in real time. Getting these calls correct is paramount since goals are such a precious commodity in soccer. And so, goal-line technology seems like the perfect case for a problem and a solution (though there are legitimate questions about whether this is something that can be applied throughout the entire world of soccer).
The problem with VAR is that it offers a false hope of objective reality. Referees are supposed to be objective (neutral) arbiters of the game, but their problem is that they are subjective (having specific embodied perspective) entities. They rely on their observations and perspectives and evaluate them according to their subjectivity.
This subjectivity is at the heart of what seems to be the problem. When Pizzi wants “justice” in the game, he wants a game where all the calls are correct all of the time. It’s a fantasy that somehow, there is a perfect objective reality that we might discover that will give us the “correct” calls. These quite simply do not exist. Almost all applications of rules require interpretations (those except, perhaps, the “is it over the line?” rules).
VAR does not attempt to cure all problems of subjectivity of course, since it applies to only certain types of calls. Some of the most subjective calls such as run-of-the-mill fouls will continue to be completely subjective. VAR is only a tool and no matter what, tools require reading and interpretation.
When VAR was unveiled in Australia, there was controversy in Sydney FC’s match against Perth Glory. At question was whether or not a player who did not attempt to play the ball was nevertheless offside by impeding a defender and interfering with the play. VAR allowed the referee a longer look, but it did not allow him to enter a magical space of objectivity. The referee made his call and there was still a debate. After delaying the game and then getting a decision that still may or may not be correct, what has VAR added to the quality of the match?
Questions of offside can be marred by the illusions of objectivity. There are certainly obvious calls that a referee will miss where a player is a yard past the last defender. However, VAR exists for the closest of calls, where an attacking player’s forehead has jutted inches past the defender’s shoulder.
The entire concept of the offside call is based on an impossibility. The human eye simply cannot fully detect all the variables involved in making the inch-perfect offside call.
This is where it gets back to being a solution without a problem. Is the game really ruined by these problems of inches? If that player’s head were just one inch back would the game really be significantly different? Has he or she really gained a significant advantage? Where soccer is a sport of flux — ebbs and flows in player movement — VAR seeks stasis.*
Is the goal of VAR to stop time at the very precise moment the ball leaves the foot of the player as he or she passes forward? The official language of the offside rule is actually even more vague than this, saying that it is when the ball “touches” that teammate. A touch has duration. It is not momentary (hell, even “momentary” has duration) in that within matter of seconds the ball is received and released by the foot.
The entire concept of the offside call is based on an impossibility. The human eye simply cannot fully detect all the variables involved in making the inch-perfect offside call. This, however, should not be lamented, but rather embraced as fundamental to the rule. An offside call should be give preference to the attack while it attempts to call it fairly.
If all this sounds so pedantic it is because VAR is by nature overly scrupulous. Certainly VAR will give us a more accurate call than solely relying on the assistant referee. But this is where I get back to the fact that this is a solution in search of a problem.
Is the problem that we just need more accuracy? Why? Since when is the point of soccer to have it be the most accurate? What is the perfect level of accuracy? Isn’t whinging about bad referee calls and injustice fundamental to the agony of being a fan?
It is time we embraced subjectivity as the feature, not a flaw of the refereeing system.
This isn’t to say we don’t make the system better through improvements. As we saw in Germany versus Cameroon, the use of VAR helped correct sending off the wrong man (after it assisted in sending off the wrong man).
The goal of any use of technology should never be to right injustice or simply make everything more accurate. It should be: make a better game. Sometimes (as with goal-line technology) that means using technology to get calls correct and other times it means letting the game move on, unimpeded by the obsessive desire for accuracy and objectivity.
*The VAR debate is a really interesting extension of the Zeno’s paradox (if you don’t remember it from college philosophy, go read it). Henri Bergson discusses Zeno’s paradox and gives it a thorough beating in Matter & Memory. I am a full-on Bergsonist, so I will just say that this whole discussion is based on the idea that time is not divisible. But I have a feeling that Infantino and FIFA don’t want to discuss Bergson with me.
FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.