Tracing my dislike of VAR back to a childhood lesson

The World Cup has started and, just as happens every four years, I feel like a ten-year-old boy again, just without the sticker album these days on the grounds of cost.

Russia v Saudi Arabia was the opening game – a clash between two of the world’s great democracies* – and I noted that the Saudis had a player called Salman Al-Faraj. With a chuckle, I nicknamed him ‘Nigel,’ then had a look at Twitter and realised hundreds, if not thousands, had got there before me.

I’ve been braced for the first significant intervention by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and didn’t have to wait too long because in the fifth match of the tournament France won a penalty against Australia thanks to the technology.

We’re told VAR is always watching, like a jobsworth CCTV, but we only ever hear about it when the referee is advised to review an incident on the pitch-side telly.

I’m really not interested in the debate about whether or not Griezmann was fouled (even though I became embroiled in just such a debate on Twitter after unwisely commenting) because I can feel my shoulders slump and the air involuntarily leaving my lungs. A sort of grey sadness washes over me while we wait for the referee to watch on the telly and give us permission to cheer or remonstrate.

I think back to when I was ten and just beginning to play ‘proper’ organised 11-a-side football at primary school. One afternoon we fidgeted with excitement in the classroom because we knew we were going to play a match at the end of the school day.

The referee was our headmaster, Mr Blake, who in my mind’s eye was seven-feet tall and wore for the occasion grey flannel shorts and a green, woollen fisherman’s jumper with patches on the shoulders.

At one point he gave a throw in the wrong way. The decision went against my team so we all protested.

‘Sir, that came off Nathan,’ we said.

‘Blue throw-in,’ said Mr Blake.

‘But Sir, it came off Nathan. It should be a red throw-in.’

He blew his whistle sharply and, it seemed, more loudly.

‘No arguing. Blue throw-in. Play on.’

The sense of injustice burned to start with. Some of us sulked, others showed renewed determination.

When the game was over, Mr Blake asked both teams to sit round in a circle.

‘Red team,’ he said, ‘that should have been your throw-in but sometimes in life a decision will go against you and it will be obvious to everyone except the person making the decision that it’s wrong. It is up to you to decide how to deal with that, just as it is up to you to decide how to react when you see an obvious case of injustice.’

I couldn’t say for certain whether Mr Blake gave the throw-in the wrong way deliberately so he could impart this bit of wisdom but I wouldn’t put it past him. In a way, it’s not important.

But it did leave a mark on me, although I am still conflicted about what I’ve taken from it.

In my darker moods I’d be tempted to think he was preparing us to settle into line and unquestioningly accept authority, although that wouldn’t fit with my other memories of his teaching style. I prefer to think he was using the opportunity to show us, via the medium of sport, what the world is like. You win some, you lose some and life is not always fair.

Back to modern football then. The laws of the game are there to be interpreted by the officials, who are reacting in real-time to a fast-moving game. VAR reduces a game of split-second decisions to a sort of line-by-line examination of the small print. It’s as if the chartered surveyors have been put in charge – no offence to chartered surveyors.

And I say all this as a Watford supporter who is still raw from the injustice of Steve Sherwood being fouled by Andy Gray for the second goal in the 1984 FA Cup final and by Ian Rush’s dive in the penalty area in a quarter-final two years later.

Those in favour of VAR say that although the system might not get every decision right it will be more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’ over time. That may well be so, but I struggle to see why that’s even important in the grand scheme of things.

I can hear the arguments already.

‘If the technology exists to help the referee then…’

And with that the tide of grey sadness washes in over me, covering my mouth and nose and sending me to sleep again. Give me the human error, the injustice and the emotion every time because we’re talking about sport, not conducting an audit of events.

(For the avoidance of misunderstanding, and at the risk of sounding contradictory – I do think that having the technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the line is a good idea, because it either has or it hasn’t. Everything else, even contact in the penalty area, is a matter of interpretation, whether viewed in real time or on a screen afterwards).