The fight to make soccer [sic] less fun
August 20, 2019 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Though VAR, in the grand scheme of global politics, is not that consequential, it perfectly encapsulates this contradiction at the heart of liberal politics. Is there any better example of our present historical moment than an automated system that strives for perfect fairness in a match between a team worth billions, backed by a petro-state, and a small, community owned club facing bankruptcy?
Sam Wetherell writes about how Video Assisted Refereeing is taken the fun out of football.
posted by MartinWisse (28 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
In every other sport with video assisted refereeing it's up to the teams or players to make the call to review a play, but FIFA has to be contrarian and let the VAR decide for itself if they are going to overrule the call on the field. That's a major part of the problem right there.
posted by Pendragon at 1:36 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


I was following the article right until the point it talked about the women's England v Cameroon. Apparently "all the Cameroon players could do was walk away from the game itself".

What a load of tripe. The petulance and poor sportsmanship of the Cameroon players was a disgrace. If FIFA had some balls, many of their players should have been suspended.
posted by jgbustos at 1:39 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


The question of video review is also well explored in the first episode of the Against the Rules podcast, where Michael Lewis visits the replay centre for the NBA, and it also raises some interesting questions about larger questions about perceptions of fairness.
posted by nubs at 1:53 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


VAR is doing what it was intended to do. People don't seem to like it, but that doesn't mean VAR is doing its job wrong - at this point, it's a matter of adjusting public perception more than it is fixing VAR, and having soccer's culture shift from "mistakes are part of the game" to "let's get as many mistakes out of the game as we can".

VAR isn't supposed to make things perfect. It's supposed to make the edge cases more definable. And it's doing that. Whether that now means we need to revisit the rules to clean up those edge cases or whether we just let VAR keep doing what it's doing is a different discussion, but VAR is performing as it should, in my opinion.

(small point of order. It's 2019. We in the US have been watching the sport for a good long while now. Can we not take it as read that sometimes people call it soccer and sometimes people call it football? And that which term you choose to use doesn't matter in the slightest?)
posted by pdb at 2:03 PM on August 20, 2019 [10 favorites]



"small point of order. It's 2019...Can we take it..." => no
posted by aleph at 2:15 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


"Let's get as many mistakes out of the game as we can" and "cleaning up edge cases" are not actually the same goal, because a referee missing a tiny fraction of a foot fault over a line that didn't in any way affect the outcome of a play is not actually a mistake. It is possible to take too much discretion out of refereeing a game, to too carefully adhere to specific lines that are merely painted on fields made out of something as non-linear as grass.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:17 PM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


because a referee missing a tiny fraction of a foot fault over a line that didn't in any way affect the outcome of a play

VAR is only invoked when a goal is scored, at which time the entire buildup to that goal is reviewed. They're not reviewing every single offsides, nor should they. The ones that get reviewed are reviewed because there could be an impact on the outcome of a play.

I was also thinking more of the Manchester City/Tottenham game when I wrote that - VAR, in that case, acted completely correctly. What wasn't right, though, was the fact that the infraction VAR found, while technically an infraction, had no actual bearing on the outcome of the play (the ball was heading to the ground along that same trajectory anyway). The hand ball rule should probably be (re)clarified to account for that sort of situation.

There was no intent on the part of the defender, and he didn't swat at the ball or otherwise make his arm a part of the play, it was truly a fluke. So in that case, VAR's not the problem - the rule is, and the rule can be changed because VAR found a situation where that change is warranted.
posted by pdb at 2:27 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


So, we both agree that in situations that have no actual bearing on the outcome of a play, neither referees nor VAR should interfere.

You just think that state of affairs should come to be through ever more finicky rules that are themselves subject to VAR and I'm saying that good refereeing can already take care of many of those situations without killing off flow of game and calling back goals minutes later.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:38 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


pdb: Can we not take it as read that sometimes people call it soccer and sometimes people call it football? And that which term you choose to use doesn't matter in the slightest?

Besides, it was upper class English dudes (specifically these guys) who came up with and popularized the word "soccer" anyway (compare "rugger" for rugby).

posted by Kattullus at 2:43 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


Nothing can match the NFL's use of video replay to introduce conceptual uncertainty into sports and make jocks wade aimlessly into century old epistemological debates about what a concept is.

It turns out that slow motion weaves doubt into the very dryfast performance enhanced NIKE trademarked fabric of the reality of catching a football.
posted by srboisvert at 2:45 PM on August 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


I have zero problem with VAR helping to make calls more accurate. But I have a big problem with VAR stopping play for 5 minutes plus and leaving the game hanging in limbo that whole time. If VAR decisions were being reliably made in 15 seconds, I think a lot of people who are currently anti-VAR would come on board.

The argument that VAR benefits wealthier and more successful clubs is absurd. This is a competition and we want our guys to win on their merits, not because the refs pity them.
posted by 256 at 2:47 PM on August 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


jgbustos: The petulance and poor sportsmanship of the Cameroon players was a disgrace. If FIFA had some balls, many of their players should have been suspended.

Arguing about this isn't particularly germane (I say after posting about the etymology of the word "soccer") but this wasn't my take on the Cameroonian reaction at all. I remain somewhat puzzled how insistent England fans have been on this interpretation.
posted by Kattullus at 2:50 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


I was at the England-Cameroon game, if you thought it was dull on tv, at least you had some clue what was going on. In the stadium it was as clear as mud. The decision on the goal, the delays with the Cameroon team then and later - it totally broke up the game.

Having said that, I totally agreed with letting Spurs through to the CL final.
posted by biffa at 3:08 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was also thinking more of the Manchester City/Tottenham game when I wrote that - VAR, in that case, acted completely correctly. What wasn't right, though, was the fact that the infraction VAR found, while technically an infraction, had no actual bearing on the outcome of the play (the ball was heading to the ground along that same trajectory anyway). The hand ball rule should probably be (re)clarified to account for that sort of situation.

There was no intent on the part of the defender, and he didn't swat at the ball or otherwise make his arm a part of the play, it was truly a fluke. So in that case, VAR's not the problem - the rule is, and the rule can be changed because VAR found a situation where that change is warranted.


But there's no way to change the rule to make it sufficiently explicit so that VAR can't fuck it up. You're just taking the uncertainty that used to result from not being able to see everything live from every angle at microsecond and millimetre detail and shoving it into uncertainty around the interpretation of whether a trajectory shifted, or an arm was being made part of the play, or a player truly has the intention to break the rule in his heart of hearts. And stopping play to do so.

See the current problems with the NFL definition of what a catch is; the fans don't know and neither does anybody. And catching the ball is pretty fucking important there. Or look at hockey -- there's an offside rule there too (an attacking player has to cross the blue line into the opponent's zone after the puck does). A few years ago, there was a wildly blown offside call in a meaningless game. Now there are umpteen billion offside reviews, which are boring and stupid. There hasn't been a similarly blown call to be overturned in the subsequent years -- that one goal was a random error -- but it's overturned incredibly important playoff goals for reasons that have nothing to do with the play (note that this video also shows the excitement of a game 7 being stopped dead for 2 entire minutes).

It makes a ton of sense for electronic systems to monitor things that can be purely monitored, like did the ball cross over the line. That's great. It can seem tempting to use VAR to review flagrant violations. But flagrant violations blend into clear violations blend into debatable violations blend into violations that are philosophical morasses. And how clear a given violation is depends strongly on what colour your shirt is.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:56 PM on August 20, 2019


I'm saying that good refereeing can already take care of many of those situations

I mean, if we’re going to stipulate good referees...
posted by nickmark at 3:59 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


My suspicion is that football fans always preferred the mistakes. As someone said upthread, the mistakes were part of the game. They love the drama, they love the villains, they secretly love having a bad call for them, or even a bad call against them. It's always been about storytelling as much as sport.
posted by other barry at 3:59 PM on August 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


As I read the red-light camera ticket I received in the mail I am thinking this just isn't fair, and it's removed the sport, as I know I was in the intersection before the light turned red—I am almost sure of it.
posted by bz at 4:14 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


I watch a ton of soccer following teams in the Bundesliga, La Liga, both of their cup tournaments, Champions League and a number of national teams across various international competitions and I have to say that I absolutely love VAR because it has drastically reduced the frequency and impact of two of the most annoying aspects of pre-VAR soccer: excessive shenanigans by players and, most importantly, bad refereeing that would tilt the momentum or, far to often, outright decide the outcome of crucial games.

That said VAR was badly executed and managed during the women's world cup resulting in way too many ridiculously long disruptions during games. This is by no means the way it has to be. It's been working fine elsewhere for some time now.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:15 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh, if it stops male players from diving and holding their shins like they've been stabbed repeatedly in the calf, then I change my mind and I am in fact entirely in favour of VAR.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:22 PM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


(disappointment that the VAR tag only goes here and not to many other posts arguing about vector autoregression)
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:24 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


On the whole, I'm a big fan of letting the game flow without spending an eternity adjudicating every possible minor infraction. VAR seems to have been implemented in various ways around the world with FIFA/IFAB only offering general guidance. The way it was implemented in the WWC was particularly egregious, and really had a negative effect on the enjoyment of the game overall.

(And I second jgbustos above. The behavior of the Cameroon women was absolutely atrocious, to the point of bringing the sport into disrepute. FIFA should have absolutely issued a number of bans, and sanctioned the Cameroon FA for their part in the travesty.)

I was nervous about what its introduction into the Premier League this year would be like, but so far on the whole I have been very pleased, and I think it should be a model for other organizations. The league have made it clear that they do not intend to use VAR to re-adjudicate the game and that it would only be used in cases of "clear and obvious error" and only in four cases: goals, penalties, red cards, and mistaken identity.

I've watched every Premier League game televised in the US this season to date, and on the whole the outcome has been pretty close to that guiding principle; it hasn't taken much time overall, and there have been few cases where I was upset from a neutral perspective about what happened. It seems that there are two prominent issues at this point.

The first is apparent confusion in the stadium about what is happening. I don't want to get to the situation in the NFL where the ref is miked into the PA system and explains each foul as it's called, but perhaps the league could work to enhance the in-stadium graphics that get played during and after a review to make it clear what is being checked and what the outcome is, playing video from the VAR center as necessary.

Second is that VAR is pointing out areas of the rules that people may not like when the law is applied as written. There is an argument that spending time checking the fraction of an inch by which a player may or may not be offside is harmful to the game and there should be some room for slop there; my answer to that is: where is the line, then?

At some point you have to have an absolute marker for when a player will be declared offside. If we say "we will allow a player to be apparently offside by at least a foot before VAR will overturn a call" you now replace one problem with two: First, you may now have plenty of cases where a player was obviously offside but the call can't be overturned because it's within the "fudge-factor" -- this is clearly a worse outcome. Second, you only move the point of dispute a bit further downfield; if you grant that foot of fudge, you now simply find yourself asking not "was the player offside by an inch?" but "was the player offside by 13 inches?".

These two issues are in opposition -- if you narrow the "fudge factor" you reduce the space in which you codify obviously-wrong decisions, but you increase the frequency of "how close was the player to this arbitary line?" questions, and vice-versa. The only thing that makes sense to me is to enforce the law, to the best of our capability, as it is written, and if we don't like what it does to the game then change the laws of the game to allow a player to be, say, up to a foot ahead of the second-to-last defender in order to promote exciting attacking play.

Similar for the handball issues. I'm a Spurs fan, and while I appreciate the delicious irony of being saved from defeat to City by two extra-time VAR calls that interpret the same rule in two completely different ways in two different seasons, I can definitely see the problems there. I don't know what the answer to the handball problem is. I personally think that the current interpretation is much too harsh on defenders and is damaging to the sport in that way. A defender shouldn't feel the need to handcuff their arms behind their backs whenever they are in the box to avoid the possibility of inadvertently giving away a penalty when the ball is kicked against them.

But again: that's the law as written. If we don't like it, we should change the law, not choose not to enforce it. I might suggest that we could be one area where we could skate by on not answering the question at all: define handball to be a situation in which in the judgement of the referee a player gained an unfair advantage by intentional illegal contact with the ball. Then allow the use of VAR to determine of contact was indeed made as an establishment of fact; but let that fact only be guidance to the ref in determining if what looked to him like an intentional infringement actually did make contact with an illegal area.

I don't know; it's a suggestion.

In short: VAR is a good thing that can be done poorly. I think the way the PL is handling it is pretty good, and we need to adjust some of the laws of the game more than we need to change the way VAR is being used.

And fuck Arsenal.
posted by jammer at 5:53 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


In every other sport with video assisted refereeing it's up to the teams or players to make the call to review a play, but FIFA has to be contrarian and let the VAR decide for itself if they are going to overrule the call on the field. That's a major part of the problem right there.

Disagree with it if you like, but I think the reasoning behind that decision is solid. If teams or players get to make the call then you absolutely will see teams asking for a VAR decision just to kill their opponent's momentum or give their fatigued players a breather.
posted by juv3nal at 6:04 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


(Also, I'd note the similar concerns around the introduction of goal-line technology. People were afraid of the delay and confusion it would cause, and the disappointment of chalking off goals that were already being celebrated, as well as the more nebulous worry of "removing the human element from the game". But now... we have a rapid verification of every goal, and every now and then we are denied an exciting victory, or escape from defeat, by the decision that a ball did not break the plane by a millimeter -- but I don't think you'd find many who would go back to the way it was. It just takes some adjustment.)
posted by jammer at 6:06 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


The NFL went from a strict challenge system to automatically reviewing all scoring plays (plus still having challenges). NCAA football the replay assistants review every play.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:12 PM on August 20, 2019


Disagree with it if you like, but I think the reasoning behind that decision is solid. If teams or players get to make the call then you absolutely will see teams asking for a VAR decision just to kill their opponent's momentum or give their fatigued players a breather.

And that's why those sports have a maximum number of times you can call in the video referee. In tennis, for example, players have three challenges per set.
posted by Pendragon at 1:31 AM on August 21, 2019


> "Video Assisted Refereeing is taking the fun out of football."

Counterpoint: No, it isn't.
posted by kyrademon at 6:22 AM on August 21, 2019


I hate VAR in soccer because it does mess with the flow of the game. And soccer is wonderful for a lot of reasons but no timeouts, along with minimal rules, are big for me. I totally agree that instead of needing video to judge offisides, they should try to fix the rule. No I don't have any idea how to do that.

As far as it the goal being fairness, well I disagree. Modern sports franchisees have invested heavily in analytics to help figure out how to spend money on players (maximize utility). It makes sense, players are expensive and it is, at the end of the day, a business.

The hope is to predict performance, and thus results. Those pesky error prone human referees can really mess with that, and it makes the computer mad. To perfectly analyze things statistically, you want an even playing field (NPI) - sadly I expect this to eventually extend to baseball beyond replay (DH in both leagues, and eventually GOD FORBID standardized parks). The curious part about this in re: TFA is that the City/PSG's of the world have so much money to burn they don't really care about utility, they care about, I dunno, PR is as good a guess as anything.
posted by pilot pirx at 6:54 AM on August 21, 2019


And that's why those sports have a maximum number of times you can call in the video referee. In tennis, for example, players have three challenges per set.

Sure, but if the challenges are deemed likely to be disruptive, it's a reasonable position to say "we're not going to allow it at all."

One option (which would never happen, but might solve this particular part of the problem) is if a challenge is not substantiated in favour of the team asking for it, the player asking for the challenge gets an immediate yellow for time wasting.
posted by juv3nal at 6:17 PM on August 21, 2019


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