What has technology done to football?

Perfect referees are a football fan’s nightmare, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent. From a report: The past four years have smoothed out some of those early kinks. Offside calls are now hyper-precise and semi-automatic. And VAR really did a good thing: it eliminated the worst of the official mistakes and made sure we don’t see another hand of God-type abomination where a particularly egregious foul somehow goes undetected and changes the course of a game. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a football fan who thinks VAR is great just the way it is. The decision between Ecuador and Qatar is a clear example of this. It was the right decision in the narrowest, most annoying sense. To the naked eye, or even to those watching a TV recording, the breach was virtually invisible amid the chaos. But VAR noticed.

Congratulations, officers – you got it right. But for what? Sport is entertainment, after all, and officiating must always be a balance between accuracy and observability. If the former were our only and last concern, we’d be investigating every possible breach… and the game would be completely unobservable. The games officials are checking – which they should be checking – are the ones where the claim, if allowed to stand, would seem genuinely unfair. Nobody (except maybe the opposing team’s fans) likes it when a legitimate looking goal is not awarded credit. When Valencia’s header hit the net, he and his teammates didn’t delay in celebrating. The Qatari players did not approach the referee in protest. The fans didn’t hesitate to lose their minds. Not even the commentators seemed to have considered the possibility that the goal might not stand, and neither did the TV viewers. Nobody asked for it. Had the game gone on, no one would have thought twice.

VAR is only useful in that it makes football better for the fans. She can only do that if she can alert them to a review early enough and render judgment fast enough not to make the celebration impossible for fear of a reversal. It should only rule out those goals where, looking back at the replay, people could reasonably think: Yes, that’s offside. Some sort of modified tie-goes-to-the-runner rule would help here by removing the scourge of “toenail offside.” They might even give the attacker a foot or two of buffer.

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