• How the Premier League can save the world from VAR

    Back in 2010, Brighton and Hove Albionís then manager Gus Poyet philosophised in his typical, charismatic way what football meant following an improbable draw against Charlton. The manager felt his team had been wronged by the referee as Albion were reduced to ten after just seven minutes, but instead chose to focus on what the team had achieved, and the incredible atmosphere.

    ďItís all about Brighton itís all about Brighton. Itís all about desire, commitment, and being proud. Itís all about the fans. Today the fans helped us, they were the 11th man on the pitch.Ē

    Nowhere in this speech did the Uruguayan include ďitís all about getting every decision correct after lengthy delayĒ. After seeing the insistence from under-pressure managers and some frustrated fans that with the stakes so high, our officials simply canít afford honest mistakes, I have been a staunch defender of the new technology. But VAR doesnít serve what football really is. It serves what it has now become.

    It has been the longstanding discontent from managers, the fury that their team has been unjustly cheated, that has set the VAR revolution into motion. On just the second weekend of the new Championship season, Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate demanded video technology should be used in the second tier. Football is now so vital, the game grotesquely saturated with money, that the Ďcorrectí outcome is paramount, the result non-negotiable. The great Bill Shankly famously commented on this significance: ďSome people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.Ē And indeed he could not be more correct - football is as important as it has ever been. But we love our beautiful game surely not because we can rest easy knowing any minor infraction will be scrutinised, and any unjust goal chalked off. We love it for the unfiltered, incomparable ecstasy of seeing the ball hit the net, our footballing heroes wheeling away with only a brief backward glance to the linesman.

    The impulsive joy of the fan experience has been unceremoniously discarded, in favour of an overbearing, dull waiting game. For each goal, once the pinnacle of football heaven, the priceless atmosphere now quickly evaporates - replaced with frustration and collective dissent from the stands. The correct decision is no consolation, regardless of whether it goes for or against your team. Fans hate it.

    The obscene scale and influence of TV broadcast money has created the Frankensteinís monster of VAR. Referees cannot win, attempting to abide by a mantra of Ďminimum interference.í Regrettably, following promising demonstrations at the 2018 World Cup and this summerís Womenís World Cup, the tweaks the FA have included do nothing but highlight the flaws of the system. With no pitchside screen, the aim was to reduce delay to the game, instead trusting the decision of the VAR official. Sound enough logic, but coupled with an insistence that they donít want to Ďre-referee the gameí, problems have been many and controversy rife. Last weekend, both David Silva for Manchester City, and Harry Kane for Spurs were denied penalties as blatant as could be reasonably conceived, on the grounds of Ďminimum interferenceí.

    The conclusion is obvious; VAR is incompatible with an entirely free-flowing game.

    With no intervention at even clear moments like these, it appears that in its current form, the use of technology will not give, only take away. Whether the goal is chalked off or not, VAR is always there, the lurking spectre of Big Brother, itís presence continually felt.

    As now, even if after review, following the dissection of the build-up play and the painstaking frame-by-frame alignment of digital offside lines, the goal is given, itís too late. The elation has subsided, delight mercilessly sucked out of the stadium. At best, a few ironic cheers and a sigh of relief. The players too - unable to truly celebrate taking the lead in a crucial match, for fear they will have to trudge back into position as if nothing at all had happened. This is not what football is meant to be. Our beautiful game is slipping away into vapid nothingness.

    But the Premier League can still save it.

    VAR has found its way into every major European league, with a positive effect overall. Naturally, there will always be controversies, but giving the on-field referee every opportunity to make the best and most accurate decision they can is a helpful measure. The Premier League has been something of a latecomer, but the reception to itís painful introduction has been overwhelmingly negative. We could opt to align with the European model, and incorporate the drama of delay with an on-field referee in complete control. There is, however, another way out.

    The Premier League is a product, and in amongst the debate and frustration surrounding VAR, there is a shrewd way to protect its value and satisfy fans. If it takes a bold step, and decides to axe the use of technology in the game, there is an invaluable marketing opportunity to christen the Premier League as the pioneer of football entertainment in the modern world. Saying no to compromising fan experience, yes to preserving the organic, magical brilliance of football in all its glory - warts and all.

    If the Premier League are brave enough to be different, to stand up in support of the on-field officials and the decisions they make, English football can remain immune from the steady poisoning of our game. Having seen firsthand the grim reality of VARís influence, fans have a responsibility to respect our referees as human beings, who make mistakes.

    If I think back to my football upbringing, the delirium at seeing my team bundle home a winner in the 90th minute against Oldham Athletic - itís harrowing to reflect how that magnificent memory could be cruelly tarnished, with a two minute wait as VAR decides whether Francisco Sandaza may have fouled his man toe-punting the ball home.

    The world is changing. But football, as it was, can still be saved. Collectively, however, we can be thankful to the VAR experiment for one thing. Itís made us realise why we really love football. The instant injection of euphoria that is a goal, the indescribable emotional adventure following your teamís highs and lows. Not in-game reviews, referee earpieces, or the wearisome, lifeless title screen: ďChecking GoalĒ.
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