VAR for the Loss

Article by Rob Pegley

Is Phil Gould happy with the bunker in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL)?

“They’d check everything if they could. They would check every single play,” he recently said. “The referees’ dream is to play the game on Sunday, finish the game at six o’clock, pack everything up and say ‘we’ll give you the result on Tuesday.’”

The KFC bunker was introduced at a cost of $2 million to “provide NRL review officials with world-class technology and enable them to deliver more accurate, efficient, consistent and transparent decisions.”

In Gould’s words: “They don’t have a clue.”

The NRL bunker has been in operation for four years. In America, the NFL has had instant replay reviews since 1986 — some 34 years — and they’re still trying to get it right. The NFL can review up to 15 different circumstances using instant replay. VAR in England only reviews four.

There’s the rub: The rule was introduced after a big and specific decision that altered a whole season for the New Orleans Saints. A huge mistake, but essentially a one-off.

In cricket, meanwhile, they love technology. Hot Spot, the Snickometer and Hawk-Eye have arguably added to the enjoyment of the game, not detracted from it. But then it’s ultimately a slower paced game; you watch for seven hours in the sun with a beer and a pie, studying the game in a leisurely, almost scientific way. The players stop for tea breaks, for God’s sake. Hot Spot and Hawk-Eye notch the drama up, rather than take it down.

Tennis is similar. Hawk-Eye’s been around for line calls and player challenges since 2004 after some shocking calls against Serena Williams in a U.S. Open quarterfinals clash she lost to Jennifer Capriati. The United States Tennis Association actually called Williams after the match to apologize. Again, tennis is slower and compartmentalized — technology acts seamlessly with the game and builds tension, rather than sucking out the emotion.

With VAR, Maradona’s Hand of God goal against England at the 1986 World Cup wouldn’t have stood. If that had been the case, the Argentine athlete might not have scored the Goal of the Century four minutes later. He might not have gone on to lift the World Cup that year. How the referee didn’t see him punch the ball in the net still amazes. But he didn’t. And we’ve all learned to live with it.

That moment has become legendary because the decision was bad and wasn’t overturned.

If not sport as a whole, VAR is certainly sucking the life out of football games. Maybe the next evolution will be to re-referee past games using technology and reverse the results based on correct decision-making? Maradona would turn in his grave.

But do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

Granted there might be a few reading this mentally voicing the argument, that Rob here more accurately speaks about “soccer” while “football” more accurately describes a purely American sport. Hey, they do call it the National Football League, after all, so that must settle the argument, right? Of course this narrow argument sort of just ignores the 3.5 billion “soccer” fans worldwide in favor of the 400 million NFL fans on the globe, but this hardly qualifies as the first time American policy rationale comes down to a “because we said so” argument. So we’ll just skip over that an point you to a thoroush, albeit self-serving, analysis of Instant Replay for all those people in the VAR countries to read should they choose. Fair warning: It will say “football” a lot on those pages. They keep using that word. We do not think it means what they think it means.