Last weekend, I was watching Liverpool and Chelsea in the English Premier League. After Liverpool had staked themselves to a 1-0 lead, Chelsea scored the tying goal. Or at least we thought it did. This season, the EPL introduced VAR (Video Assistant Referee), a form of replay review. Unlike in North American sports, VAR is automatic and is used to double check all scoring plays for infractions. Penalty kicks can also be ruled through VAR, if the on-field ref and his assistants miss a blatant penalty inside the box. It also applies on fouls that can be adjudged to be straight red cards, or if a referee gets a player wrong in handing out a red card.
And so, after Chelsea thought it had closed in on Liverpool, VAR over-ruled the ruling on the field, which was for a goal, as Chelsea striker Mason Mount was technically offside. You see, his lower right leg was beyond the line established by Liverpool’s back line for offside. And, so strictly speaking, according to the laws of football/soccer, Mount was offside and the goal did not count. To add insult to injury, Liverpool immediately went up the field and Roberto Firmino scored, 2-0 Liverpool, thank you very much.
I am a Liverpool fan. Passionately, and have been since I was a kid and Liverpool were the dominant side in English and European football. This summer, when I was in Madrid a few weeks after Liverpool defeated Tottenham Hotspur for the Champions’ League title at the Estadio Metropolitano, the home field of Atlético Madrid, I went on a stadium tour just to soak up whatever atmosphere remained.
But that decision against Chelsea was a joke. VAR is ruining football. It is no different in North American sports with replay review in Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, NCAA, NFL, and even the Canadian Football League (which, of all professional sports leagues, butchered the introduction of video review something fierce). Video review is ruining Canadian, American, and European football. It is ruining hockey. And basketball and baseball even, as if the visual experience of baseball could be any worse.
Sports are played by humans, they are acts of passion, perseverance, and they are the scenes of incredible joy and defeat. Mistakes are central to sports. Firmino’s goal against Chelsea was a perfect case in point. Defender Andrew Robertson took a free kick just outside the box, crossing the ball in front of goal, where Firmino was not marked, so he had a free header. Liverpool’s goal was the result of two mistakes by Chelsea. The first was César Azpilcueta’s foul against Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum. The second was the failure to mark Firmino.
Baskets, touchdowns, goals big plays, all of these in an sport, they are the result of human error. Poor strategy is the fault of the coach or manager. Athletes commit any number of errors on the field of play, errant passes, losing control of the puck or ball, tripping over their own feet, overrunning the ball, or shooting wildly and missing the net grievously. Coaches make horrible mistakes in putting the wrong personnel on the field or ice, resulting in losses. Sometimes coaches just aren’t that good and their teams get pasted. Sometimes the players aren’t that good and they get pasted.
Referees are humans too. And usually, referees are remarkable athletes in their own right. A soccer head ref is running up and down the field, oftentimes at a sprint, for two 45-minute halves. I used to ref high school soccer in Tennessee, and one game, I ran over 13km in the space of the 90 minute match. The linespeople run up and down their half of the field, sometimes sprinting, for the same period. Hockey refs and linesmen have physical jobs (you ever tried breaking up a fight between two 210lb men?).
And this move towards video replay and VAR of their errors removes their human error from the world of sports. This is, quite frankly, stupid. It ruins sports, it ruins the human element of the game, and it puts undue pressure on the referees, who are never as well compensated as the players, and suffer incredible amounts of abuse from players, coaches, and fans. Even refereeing high school soccer, I had one coach offer to fight me because he thought I blew an offside call (I didn’t) and one parent followed me back to my car after I lined a game and his daughter got hurt because the ref (I was not the ref) missed the hit that hurt her, and my raised flag calling his attention to it. Video review doesn’t make the ref’s job easier, it means that Big Brother is forever breathing down her or his neck.
And it destroys the social contract of sports, between fans, players, coaches, management, and, yes, even the referees. We have an agreement that humanity at its best and worst is on display here on all of our parts. Except the refs, they no longer are allowed to make mistakes.
Games are won and lost, oftentimes, by the slimmest of margins. Had Chelsea’s disallowed goal stood, it would’ve been 1-1 and a very different game than the one that saw Liverpool emerge with a 2-1 victory. Who knows what would’ve happened? Maybe Chelsea would’ve forced a draw, or even won, marring Liverpool’s winning streak and pulling them that much closer back to the pack in the standings. I wouldn’t have liked that, of course, but it would’ve been fair. VAR was unfair to Chelsea. Egregiously so.
And VAR also privileged one error, that of Mason Mount, over another series of errors, by Liverpool’s defence, leading to the ultimately disallowed goal. Not all errors are equal in the field of play, of course. It player one blows his check in the neutral zone, it is not the same as doing the same in the slot, right in front of the goalie, leaving the opponent with no one to beat but the goalie. Blowing your check in the neutral zone is also not the same as the goalie being out of position on a shot. But in the case of the disallowed goal, Liverpool’s defence committed the most egregious errors, but they were let off the hook because Mount was offside by a few inches.