In response to the hairline decision delivered by the VAR gods in Stockley Park that ruled out Jordan Henderson’s injury time goal against Everton, Match of the Day commentator Guy Mowbray tweeted: “Said it many times and still think it – if you have to forensically draw lines to try to establish offside then it’s too close to call and should be seen as ON. It’s sport not science. I don’t want to watch a trigonometry test.” And Mowbray is right, football is known as ‘The Beautiful Game’ as coined by Pelé, whose birthday it is today, because it is an art and it is the most aesthetically pleasing sport, hence its popularity.
Take Roberto Carlos’ much-celebrated free-kick against France in Le Tournoi in 1997. The vicious swerve of the ball defied physics and that is why it has been viewed millions of times over the last twenty-odd years. It thrills us as it flies in at the near post. The look of utter astonishment on Fabien Barthez’s face as he tries to comprehend how that has flown past him is shared by us all. That goal is all about awe and wonder, we do not need an analysis of the angle of the ball or the drag force imparted on it by the Brazilian. We crave the exhilaration; we do not need the explanation.
Sport, and football in particular, is artistic in that it is subjective; people hate and like the same things whether they be clubs or players, painters or sculptors. Scientists demand cool, calm reason; they need objectivity. For scientists rules are sacrosanct, whereas the greatest artists/footballers revel in being rule breakers. George Best, Diego Maradona and Paul Gascoigne to name but three.
The merits of the VAR system have been debated endlessly but there is a sense that we are reaching a point of no return. I am old enough to remember when linesmen used the concept of clear daylight as their guideline but the game has quickened up to such an extent that this would probably not be practicable. Maybe, just maybe, the interpretation could be based on common sense rather than the finest of lines. VAR is suffering because it is dealing in black and white whereas football is a fluid game that has always accommodated the odd imperfection, operating in a series of multiple grey areas.
Mowbray despairs at the lack of nuance in the way VAR has been deployed in the Premier League. “My view has been the same from the very first match when VAR was used at West Ham on the opening day of last season. Raheem Sterling was adjudged to have been offside, by the fabric of his shirt. We don’t need that level of granular detail, football is not an accurate game. It is ludicrous. I get asked ‘Where do you draw the line?’ Well, quite simply you don’t, if there’s reasonable doubt then he’s onside.”
Referees are human and occasionally make mistakes but name a player or a manger who is faultless? The way that referees are now hounded from pillar to post by managers, players, fans and the media troubles Mowbray. “I don’t remember any seriously marginal offside decisions in the pre-VAR days that led to the officials being absolutely pummelled as they are today. The refusal to accept the odd bad decision is a blight on the game and that started with the Premier League when the stakes were raised so high.”
By contrast in other sports, technology works well. The Hawk-eye system in tennis, which determines if a ball is in or out, is accepted without any fuss. In a similar way goal-line technology (bar the baffling decision to disallow Sheffield United’s goal against Villa last season) is now part and parcel of the game as it is dealing with a simple static moment. In cricket DRS is used in LBW decisions to confirm where a ball pitches & its likely trajectory, but most importantly the use of umpire’s call gives some leeway to close decisions and backs the on-field judgement.
Whereas when VAR rides into town, it usurps the authority of the referee on the pitch and that leads to more pressure on the man in the middle. “They went too far by giving it a name and its own rules and regulations and as for the whole Stockley Park thing..” Mowbray trails off in frustration. While other sports are capturing moments in time, the issue with football is that it is such a fluid game that does not lend itself to such microscopic rulings on offsides.
VAR was introduced into football to rectify clear injustices. The judgement of whether Sadio Mane’s sleeve was millimetres ahead of an Everton defender’s foot takes splitting hairs to an almost literal level. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Nike or Puma are testing out skin-tight shirts with less voluminous sleeves that will give an advantage in these situations. After all, it’s about fine margins.
Adding fuel to the already raging fire is the issue of picture frames per second, which undermines the accuracy of these decisions. Nobody can say with 100% certainty that the snapshot used by the officials is taken at the precise moment the ball is touched. With this element of doubt the scientists will be tearing their hair out, as will all self-respecting artists.
Mowbray is adamant that things have to change otherwise the spirit of ‘The Beautiful Game’ will be eroded to the point of destruction. For him the solution is simple and is staring us all in the face. “Use the fourth official as a video ref,” Mowbray says. “At the moment he is just a glorified admin assistant, either keeping the peace between the managers or holding up a board now and again. But he could be another pair of eyes to help the referee and advise him on any howlers be it clear offsides, yellow cards that should have been reds, even erroneously given corners.”
Mowbray recalls talking to Howard Webb after the 2010 World Cup Final about Nigel de Jong’s infamous assault on Xabi Alonso’s chest, which Webb later agreed was a red card offence. “Howard told me he didn’t get a clear view and neither did his assistants, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, and that was where the fourth official should have intervened.” So, step forward the saviour of ‘The Beautiful Game’, we need you now.