by Paul Gardner
Baseball, we’re told, is a game of inches. Right, and soccer is a game of feet. Ha ha, hilarious joke. But hold the knee-slapping if you will, for soccer can, much more seriously, be measured on another scale. That of time. Soccer is a game of seconds. A game in which results hang upon what happens in a fraction of a second.
That inescapable fact merits careful attention. There are several viewpoints. That of the players, or the coaches, or referees or TV commentators or even the fans — all have to be constantly adjusting their thoughts, their actions, their responses to a world of seconds. At times, even of nano-seconds.
Is it possible, do you think for the human brain to function effectively in a nano-second world? As far as soccer is concerned, I’d say no, it is not. Players, even Messi, all make mistakes. The best players make fewest errors, of course, and a player who consistently screws up should not expect much of a future in soccer.
Even so, most of the mistakes, whoever makes them, are quickly forgotten. It is the high-speed of the game that induces the mistakes, and it is that same rapidity that quickly buries them.
At least, that’s what happens for the players. Things are rather different for referees. While it is generally accepted that referees are human, and therefore not perfect, they are not expected to make mistakes.
The problem with a referee mistake is that it cannot be seen as neutral. It will favor one team and damage the other. And it is much less likely to be quickly forgiven.
That referees operate in a disputatious atmosphere, that they have to be prepared to make themselves unpopular - that is all part of the job.
However, is it right that they should be required to make decisions that they cannot possibly make? That they should be expected to get everything right in a world of nano-seconds and nano-inches? Is it even possible that they can be that efficient? Or are things happening on the field that are too quick or too small for the human brain to register?
The question has acquired a sharper focus with the arrival of the VAR and all the intricate paraphernalia of modern technology which allows him to slow the action down, or to completely freeze it, to get his machines to measure what are, to the human brain, imperceptibly small distances or time periods. The question is no longer “Can the referee detect these minute readings?” but “Can VAR detect them better? And quicker?” A human vs machine question, to which the answer is clearly known and accepted: the machine - i.e. technology - does it better.
More questions, then. If technology is so markedly superior, why do we need the referee’s slower and less acute version of things? FIFA has aleardly announced the introduction of semi-automated offside technology at the 2022 World Cup. Frankly, we don’t. The day cannot be far away when technology will be able to instantly (and super-accurately) detect offside without any human intervention at all. Farewell to the AR? And we shall have the game automatically halted, not by the referee’s whistle, but by a squawk or a squeak from a computer.
That squawk (sorry, but computers, along with the rest of what are now called devices, seem to me to emit only ugly noises) is technology speaking, so don’t even think about questioning its decision. The squawk has squawked and that is that.
We have reached that stage. The computer is making vital calls, thanks to its extraordinary ability to detect whether a goal has been scored or not. Did all the ball pass over all the goal line? Technology will tell us, down to a minimal hair’s-breadth measurement, and it will tell us instantly, if we let it, with another, but different, squawky-squeaky sound.
So the squawks will decide who is offside, and whether a goal has been scored. How far can this invasion of the squawks be pushed before the referee finds himself banished to perform some minor ancillary role. Squawked to the sideline.
Will that really happen? I for one sincerely hope not. Not merely because I simply don’t like the idea of a machine-controlled game, but also because I find those super-duper quasi-invisible nano- measurements pretty ridiculous.
Soccer’s Rule 11 (or, if you suffer from the cultural-cringe that requires you to adopt snobby Victorian English attitudes and language, Law 11) is all about Offside, and includes the phrase “gaining an advantage” as one of the signs of being offside. Which has me pondering just how much advantage can be gained by a toe-nail or a nose-tip distance - measurements often cited as demonstrations of just how clever the VAR can be.
But it’s decidedly healthy to note that when such citations are made, they are often critical - not openly so, you get nowhere by openly challenging the accuracy of technology - but with the covert teasing humor of mockery. Accurate they may be, but as a soccer measurement, they’re still ridiculous.
Ridiculous because we know that human referees cannot make such fine distinctions. So why not accept that and also accept the referee’s decision? Only if that decision involves a “clear and obvious error” can it be changed. That makes sense — for it would rule out these micro-millimetric judgments. There cannot be anything “clear and obvious” about toe-nail measurements.
FIFA evidently feels that the VAR’s powers must be strictly limited, because that phrase — “clear and obvious error” — is part of FIFA’s VAR Protocol, which states that the VAR “may assist the referee only in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’ ...” and further restricts VAR intervention to cases of “goal/no goal, penalty/no penalty, direct red card, mistaken identity.”
That seems to impose pretty stringent limits on the use of VAR. In fact, it hardly limits it at all. Because the “goal/no goal” category includes this: “attacking team offence in the build-up to or scoring of the goal (handball, foul, offside etc.}.” Why that final “etc.” is considered necessary baffles me. They’ve managed to include everything that would normally invalidate a goal. It is almost as though VAR is actively looking for reasons to nix goals.
The most significant word in the offenses named in the protocol definition is “offside.” And we continue to see VAR offside decisions made on the basis of invisible distances. Distances which no human referee could possibly detect.
How far can this apparent superiority of technology over a live referee be taken? Will the day arrive when there is no referee, just a computer and a variety of squeaks and squawks?
I watched a game recently which greatly encouraged me to think that day would never arrive. Because of a rather complicated moment or two of action, which went like this: Team A Attacker is in possession of the ball in Team B’s penalty are. Team B defender tackles the attacker, knocks him down. Referee, no hesitation, whistles for a penalty kick to Team A, gives a yellow card to Team B defender.
My immediate opinion was that the referee made the right call.
But here comes the VAR. And there goes the referee to study the monitor. Doesn’t take long before the referee is signaling “NO penalty” and is nixing the yellow card.
Well now — the referee made an instant decision. The VAR then took a bit more time, studying and no doubt slo-moing replays, before making his decision that the referee should take another look. Again, technology (the VAR) vs. human (the referee). No contest. VAR technology wins.
This was a Spanish TV channel. The commentators had trouble identifying exactly what the VAR saw that caused him, and the referee, to cancel the PK call. They eventually decide: in his tackle, the Team B defender definitely got to the ball first, poking it very slightly before he brought down the Team A attacker. That must be it, they conclude, though neither sounds too convinced.
I have to agree with them — Team B defender did get a foot on the ball first, and that’s the only thing the replay reveals. I also do not feel comfortable with the reasoning. We’re very familiar with the notion that “getting the ball” legalizes what might otherwise be judged an illegal tackle (too rough, too late, too high). “I got the ball, ref!” yells the player, making an elegant imitation of an orb with his hands.
A look at the rulebook is necessary. Where does it say that “getting the ball,” and getting it first, is all that matters in defining a clean tackle? Nowhere that I can find. Rather the opposite, in fact: Rule 12 states clearly that “any tackle or challenge” that endangers the safety of an opponent must be adjudged “serious foul play” — i.e. a red card offense; no mention of getting, or not getting, the ball.
Back to Team B defender’s tackle. Yes, he did get the ball first. We now know this is not a factor, not in the rulebook. But the defender’s challenge meant that almost immediately after contact with the ball he made contact with the Team A attacker and brings him down. Almost simultaneously.
And knocking the attacker to ground is the vital part of the incident, because the ball — only slightly poked by the B defender — is on the ground, at Attacker A’s feet, ready to be dribbled, or shot on goal.
I have spent a good deal of time squinting at these replays. I have, in fact, watched the incident for what now feels like a thousand times, taking much more time over it than the VAR did. I’m not satisfied because I’m feeling that there is something wrong with the decision not to award a penalty kick.
Later, I read the ESPN game report: No penalty, because “the pitch-side monitor showed the [Team A Attacker] had stepped into his defender to initiate the contact.” ESPN implies but does not actually say that this is the official version. Is the VAR obliged to issue an official explanation of his decisions? I’m afraid I don’t know.
Whatever. Official or not, I find this an opinion that is not supported by the video replays. What the replay shows is Defender B stretching his right leg across Attacker A’s path to poke the ball away. Inevitably the legs of the two players tangle and Attacker A goes down. To penalize the Attacker for initiating the contact when it was the Defender’s challenge that caused it is absurd. The leg tangle follows so quickly after the contact with the ball that it is almost part of the tackle.
With my not-necessarily state-of-the-art stop-watch I could not separate the two actions. The space between them must have been less than a second.
In my mind, that raises a serious doubt about the validity of VAR’s call. At the center of the problem is the clear fact that Defender B does not play the ball away from Attacker A, who remains on his feet, with the ball on the ground, well within his control range.
What prevents him from dribbling the ball away, or taking a shot on goal, is the leg tangle with Defender B which sends him sprawling forward to the ground.
Rewinding a little: the initial challenge from Defender B is evidently judged legal by the VAR — because the defender played the ball fairly. But the subsequent contact with Attacker A, that which knocked him down — is that legal? VAR sees no foul there.
As it happens, I do. Because I do not believe the subsequent contact should be viewed as legitimate. It is evidently a deliberate attempt by Defender B — by now aware that the ball is still at the feet of Attacker A — to break up any possible play. Defender B even leans heavily into Attacker A, as though to ensure that he goes to ground.
To call that contact legal, as the VAR did, you have to judge that it was part of the original — and legal — challenge. That I cannot see. What I do see is two challenges by Defender B. In quick succession. His first challenge was judged legitimate. Well, legitimate it may have been, but it was not successful.
Defender B did not win the ball, nor did he cause Attacker A to lose control. At that point, I think it is fair to judge that Defender B’s challenge was over and done with. It hadn’t worked.
What follows, then is not part of a legal play. It is a new and separate play. A clear foul, and therefore a penalty kick to Team A.
Earlier, I referred to soccer as a game of seconds. This incident had two parts, both played out within one second. I have mentioned the failure of my veteran stop-watch to separate them. TV did no better. When Defender B played the ball in his first challenge, the TV clock showed 43m 11sec. When he brought down Attacker A it still showed 43:11.
A nightmare call for the referee. Much less of a nightmare, I would have thought, for the VAR. Who could slo-mo and freeze-frame and replay the replays. Yet he got it wrong.
In this case, I believe it was good old refereeing instincts that enabled the referee, without benefit of VAR, to get it right. Immediately. While the VAR, with time on his side, plus the benefit of just about everything that technology can offer, got a bit too clever and screwed up.
That is merely disturbing. I worry more about the speed with which the referee over ruled his own decision. That saddens me, because I rate this an occasion when the humans got the better of technology. And the more technology threatens to take over from the referee, the more I shall relish these challenges to the rule of squeaks and squawks.