When I joined the Observer in 1990 the country was just rediscovering its love of the national game, thanks to Gazza’s tears and the BBC’s cultured coverage of Italia 90 drawing a line under the careless 1980s, a decade when one horrific disaster after another followed from the general assumption that football supporters were a troublesome subspecies barely worth anyone’s care and attention.
In a couple more years the advent of the Premier League would massively increase the game’s prosperity and visibility, allowing grounds to be made safer and more attractive to a wider section of society. Yet encouraging as it was to see female fans and families returning to games, not every subsequent change has been for the better.
Back in the early 1990s no one had to worry about football turning into a proxy showcase for nation states with plenty of money but poor human rights records, for instance. The idea of playing a World Cup in Qatar would rightly have been dismissed as ridiculous, Fifa was yet to turn into an international embarrassment and the notion of a Champions League elite, a small cabal of clubs in each European league who would grow richer and stronger at everyone else’s expense, would have struck most as unfair and undesirable.
Yet a personal opinion is that what would really have stopped the football watcher of 30 years ago in their tracks would be the discovery that at some point in the future, games would be paused for minutes on end while a group of officials in a bunker miles away pored over minute measurements to decide whether goals should be allowed.
Celebrating a goal is one of the delights of attending a live game. Depending on the type of goal, it might take a judicious glance at the linesman’s flag before joy can be unconfined, but no more than that. Football is not cricket or tennis, which are stop-start activities involving hundreds of line decisions per contest. It owes much of its popularity to being spontaneous and free-flowing.
Theoretically at least, minutes can pass in a football match without the referee’s whistle or the ball going out of play, just as, in days of yore, most teams could get through most seasons with no more than a handful of genuine gripes about poor refereeing or wrongly awarded goals.
It is true there have been a number of high-profile cases where refereeing errors have been picked up by television cameras and highlighted to a living-room audience while the paying fan at the stadium remained in the dark, but that regrettable anomaly could and should have been eliminated some time ago by a combination of goalline technology and making reviews via pitchside monitor available to officials.
Instead we have VAR, football’s equivalent of Brexit, self-inflicted damage that becomes more ludicrous and intrusive every week, with no one willing to stand up and say this is not at all what was envisaged. Perhaps it is not exactly an emergency if a sport wants to make a fool of itself in such a way, though the game in England is a market-leading product and it is supposed to be part of the entertainment industry, not a subdivision of the earth-measuring fraternity.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and an Everton fan, was bang on when he described VAR as a nitpicker’s charter. The whole principle, that every goal must be retrospectively examined to check whether there is any reason to disallow it, seems wrong, anti-sport, cart before horse. Who decided it was a good idea to give referees so much input, especially ones not even at the game? Who decided football was missing out on line decisions and needed to be brought in line with cricket and tennis?
To those who maintain it is important to be correct whatever the length of time it takes or that offside is a black-and-white issue whereby half an inch is just as culpable as half a yard, I would put the following points. Is a player offside by an armpit or a big toe cheating? Are they seeking or obtaining an unfair advantage? And given the distances are so small and players will not always know the exact moment when the ball is played, are they likely to have any idea of whether they are offside or not?
If the answer to all three questions is no, as is frequently the case, do we really need the game to be endlessly stopped in a pointless quest for the absolute truth? Some good-looking goals, as well as some crucial ones, have been chalked off because of trifling and unintentional transgressions that no one in the stadium can see.
Because, unlike the important lines in cricket and tennis, the offside line is not painted on the floor. Objecting to electronic lines being retrospectively applied is not necessarily a Luddite stance. A sport can make up or amend its own rules, it is not governed by the laws of the universe. Innovations such as the Sinclair C5 or the Betamax cassette prove technology does not always mean progress anyway. The way VAR is being used also feels like something we will end up laughing about in the future.
We keep being told teething problems are to be expected and that in time VAR will become quicker and more sophisticated, though my hunch is it will still carry on looking for the wrong things. As we have spent the past few seasons discovering, it is still humans who make the interpretations, so ultimately what is the point?
I will miss covering matches when I retire, but I won’t miss writing about VAR. This, I can promise, is my final word on the subject. Goodbye and thanks for reading.
Five favourite memories
Favourite goal: A lot to choose from but Robin van Persie’s “Superman” header for the Netherlands against Spain in the 2014 World Cup remains a vivid memory. It came from nowhere, was like nothing I had seen before and involved an almost unrepeatable combination of skill, luck and timing. Gazza against Scotland in 1996 was pretty good for the same reasons.
Favourite chant: “You’re Welsh, and you know you are” – England fans at Cardiff in 2005. Special mention also for the chorus Liverpool supporters reserve for Merseyside derbies – “You haven’t won a trophy since 1995” – set to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Hard as it is for an Evertonian to admit, you miss that sort of thing in empty stadiums.
Luckiest double: May 1999 was notable for two incredible last-minute dramas, Ole Gunnar Solskjær securing Manchester United’s treble at the Camp Nou and the on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass going up for a corner at considerably less glamorous Brunton Park to score the goal that kept Carlisle in the league. It was a privilege to be at both events.
Hoariest tale: The time in a hotel in Poland when a group of us were discussing the wisdom of the England captain’s tattoo fetish and speculating whether he might end up with one on his head, unaware Mrs Sandra Beckham was dining at the next table, partly hidden by a banquette seat. “Excuse me, that’s my son you’re talking about.”
Fondest memory: Palo Alto 1994, with Californian sun blazing down on a roofless stadium and Santana playing on the pitch before Brazil kicked off against Russia. The bloke I bumped out of the way in my eagerness to reach the seat for my first World Cup game turned out to be Pelé, causing an obstruction by signing autographs near the press box.
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