Football, even at it’s highest levels, is a fairly messy, frustrating game. There are more scrambling, flukey or mundane goals than any other, but when the game truly becomes beautiful, when everything is put together to score a beautiful goal, it makes the wait and the messiness worth it. It is this mixture of imperfection, scrambling to success, and sometimes, sheer poetry in motion that makes it truly the sport of humanity.
It comes with the territory then that football, and especially those in charge of it professionally, is far from perfect. This game of the world has become tainted by money and commercialism; it caters increasingly for the middle and upper classes with game tickets pricing out grass-root fans and coverage increasingly being held hostage on subscription channels like Sky or BT Sport. The World Cup, however, has managed to hold off a lot of these regressive progressions, being found more on free or more accessible stations world wide.
That said, there have been some new facets to the World Cup this year which have worked to undermine this higher level of engagement with the game. One of these ‘advancements’ is goal line technology, but while a lot of what this article will say applies to that, it’s been around for a while already. The main subject here will be the introduction of VAR, and how it is part of an ongoing insipid campaign to cleanse football of it’s imperfections, and some of it’s character.
Theoretically, I understand why some fans have called for VAR in football. Refereeing mistakes happen, to some degree, fairly commonly, and that can be frustrating for fans; but when you think about it, what are the most memorable, passionate moments you share with football? First, I would argue, are the rare moments of sublime beauty, like Archie Gemmill passing and ‘megging the Dutch to score in ’78, or Maradona running through the English to score; but secondly, I think it’s the moments of controversy, like Scotland definitely being cheated out of Euro 2008 qualification or Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’.
Whether it creates something memorable like the Hand of God, or something painful, controversy creates conversation, debate, and something to wonder about. Righteous anger, disappointment, and sadness are as important and meaningful to the human condition as joy, and as dark as that sounds, they aren’t feelings we should be scared of. Often, they shape us. At the very least, having controversial incidents occur that allow you to talk about the football, be it in a friendly way or a more heated debate, is part and parcel of what makes the game so special. It’s part of it’s lifeblood.
Then enters VAR.
Now it’s crucial to note that VAR hasn’t ended debate in football altogether – talking heads seemingly can’t get enough of discussing ‘whether VAR has worked this time’, but what it has done is shifted the arena of contentious footballing incidents from the interpretation of the action on the pitch, to a swithering discussion about the purpose and processes of VAR itself. The memories of the incidents are muddled with images of referees looking at screens and hand-wringing over whether the ‘correct’ decision was made. The moments of joy, anger, or despair we might witness are dulled by the inevitable period of second-guessing while we wait for VAR to clear the incident.
My issue isn’t that I actively wish for refereeing mistakes to happen; rather, that I see the collateral value in them when they do happen. To use an example I mentioned earlier, as a Scotland fan, there is a certain righteous comfort I take in knowing (well, believing) that Scotland were good enough to qualify, had the World Champions bang to rights, and were just screwed over. In this World Cup, the specific issue that spawned this article was the Spain vs Iran match in which Iran had a goal disallowed that could have ultimately sent them to the knockout rounds and ‘dreamland’.
By the letter of the law, the goal being disallowed was correct, Ezatolahi was offside. All I remember though is what a downer it was. Iran scoring against an – admittedly wilting – historic Spain side would have been memorable enough, to do so to earn a point against them would be even more significant; to do so on the way to progressing to the knockout rounds would have been the most significant moment in Iranian football history, and you could see it in the sheer outpouring of joy from the Iran players and coaches. Five minutes later though, the jobsworths at FIFA had overturned the goal, Spain went on to win, and Iran were later knocked out after another valiant effort against Portugal. A moment of joy became a mere talking point after the game, and while Iranians might won’t forget it for a while, they don’t have the same recourse as before – either the wry enjoyment of getting something past the ref, nor a real controversy to at least hold on to for consolation or motivation. It was the correct decision, there’s not much else to say.
Again, I don’t rub my hands at the prospect of a wrong decision in football, but in cases such as this, I see the value of them. That moment for Iran was a beautiful outpouring that was also truly relatable as a fan – it must be said – of a currently smaller nation. In previous competitions, the fallibility of the officials mixed with the power of the celebrations would have been enough to carry the day for the goal to stand, and I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. It would have been a defining moment of the tournament that would have helped shape it if Iran would have progressed. But no, the fun police were called, and normal service was resumed. It’s part of the obvious worldwide trend towards the automation of work taking the humanity out of society, but football is something that needs it’s humanity to maintain it’s magic.
I have been genuinely disheartened to hear commentators, pundits, and some fans alike praise with relief that VAR has led to the correct decision. Of course it’s good in a sense that the right decisions are made, but this obsession that ‘the correct decision must always be made’ fundamentally people’s relationship with the sport – it’s a space where all aspects of humantity, good or bad, wrong or right can be shown off, and it’s always beautiful in some way.
An opening and closing argument for this is the Hand of God. Of course Maradona cheated, no one disputes that, but it made for one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history, and one that fed in to the aura of Maradona as a roguish nutter-genius. It’s almost anti-football (he literally handballs it) but it’s also a pillar of football experience. If VAR had been in place though, the goal would have been disallowed, Maradona booked, and an iconic match may not be remembered really at all. It whitewashes the game, and while there will be times the reviews will be welcome, it surrenders too much of that humanity away from the sport.
Another element of the game that is a rather dull talking point, again, at this World Cup is how to dissuade players from ‘unsportsmanlike’ behaviour, things like crowding the referee or most notably, diving.
Starting with the element I’m perhaps least protective of, the crowding of the referee has been an ‘issue’ for as long as I can remember. I must say, it’s not something I revel in, and it can be uncomfortable, but I think the hand-wringing over it has reached a bit of a critical mass, especially after the Colombia-England game in which the English pundits were falling over each other to demonise the Colombians. There are two ways to look at this, and the purists want you to see it both ways: either that they were intimidating the ref, or that they were using it as slight of hand to scuff up up the penalty spot. In the latter instance, it’s a bit of clever gamesmanship where the Colombians took the opportunity to try to salvage the situation; not something you would applaud, so to speak, but understandable. It’s harder to defend them intimidating the referee, but I also stop short of condemning them – heaven forbid they get a bit hot after giving away a penalty in a knock out game at the World Cup that was nearly the deathblow of their four-year journey! As bad as it is, the referee was never assaulted or anything, just noised up a bit. The fact that the talking heads want robotic ‘role models’ doesn’t mean you should expect it, and as a football fan, I like seeing some fire from the players.
Next up is the monster bug bear of the modern game: diving.
To sound repetitious, I should state that I don’t condone diving, so to speak, but I also see it’s place in the game. Whether we like it or not, fouls and free kicks are a fundamental part of the game, and with football being such a free form of expression, of course players are going to engage with them and try to gain an advantage. It’s an aspect of football that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful as I would others, but I admire the extra element it adds to the game, even if it frustrates me too at times. For me, if someone takes a dive rather than stay on their feet for a viable attack, it doesn’t even really make sense, and when done badly, it certainly looks pathetic. That said, it’s a phenomenon of evolution and not worth existential concerns it creates in some people.
Here’s the thing – it already self-governs to a large extent. The players pundits tear their hair out over for diving, like Neymar especially at this World Cup, aren’t gaining much of an advantage. Those who overdo it, or do it without smarts are well-known and referees often look upon them with extra skepticism. Indeed, earlier in this competition, the deeply unpopular Pepe hit the deck after being overpowered by Diego Costa, stayed down, and wasn’t around to stop Costa scoring his excellent individual goal in that game. Between embarrassment and the risks of doing it, diving doesn’t go unpunished anyway.
That said, a simple solution to help address the issue in a more sensible way. Calls for every single dive to result in a yellow card will never be successful because no one likes dishing out yellows. I think they should be treated as normal fouls and judged on severity. Diving should only be an automatic yellow card if someone is trying to gain a penalty, otherwise, players should get yellows for persistent diving. That’s manageable and not too much of a puritanical solution I think.
There’s a saying that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, but I think something more along the lines of ‘rules are meant to be played with’. Maybe it’s because I love wrestling and Eddie Guerrero, but I admire the attempts of some players to try to gain an advantage for their team by getting one past the referee. Any structure or framework is just that, something man-made that can, and maybe should, be challenged. It’s where the greatest art and expression comes from, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s part of human curiosity, expression, competitiveness, or all of the above.
Think of the football that those with voices and power are trying to create: one where the players are all well behaved, reserve their passions for goals, and any controversy on the pitch is quickly mopped up. It’s not the same – it’s a procession lacking in the imperfections which make the sport accessible to everyone. Rather than aspiring to being kinda crazy geniuses like Cantona, Zidane, or Maradona, the ultimate footballer role-model will be clean, unquestioning cyphers.
I don’t think this is accidental. As with everything else, follow the money. The financially bloated, sponsor-dependent cottage industry that football has become doesn’t have much time for true individualism, and certainly not for controversy. It deals increasingly in idealised visions, nothing to do with the actual game but with image – haircuts, kit designs, video game covers, and social media impact. TV stations love being able to spend money on new graphics for goal-line technology and VAR but start wringing their hands after even harmless acts of character, like a delighted flipping the double fingers at the Nigerian fans after surviving their challenge. He got excited and expressed it in his own way, and people are still practically tutting at him. There’s no room for that. Well-behaved, quiet, humble players and clean games are better for the image of the millionaires and billionaires holding the purse-strings.
Even worse is that, those who call for a clean VAR process and demonise ‘dirty’ players take these positions while propping up far worse instances of questionable behaviour and corruption. They throw up their hands about the effect Neymar taking a dive has on the game while sat at a World Cup in Russia, and preparing for one in Qatar, while sat next to stadiums which will barely be used again, that local people were displaced so they could be built.
The World Cup should be hosted around the world in succession for sure (and I plan to write at length about that and related subjects in the near future so won’t expand too much here), but it needs to be done with a genuine understanding that the people want it and will genuinely benefit from it. The World Cups in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar don’t sit right for many different reasons. Brazilians protested with vigour hosting the World Cup, despite their love of football, because they knew they would never see the billions being spent on it again, billions that could go towards improving some of the country’s desperate social and infrastructure issues while this Russian World Cup is seen as a propaganda exercise for Vladimir Putin and his evil, oppressive, intolerant regime. Qatar provides a mixture of both issues. All three will leave their countries and maybe more beyond in worse shape. These are giant, troubling issues that are the real rotten core of the football bureaucracy, not controversy or foul play.
On this topic, I see hosting major competitions like the World Cup as a huge honor and morale boost. It’s not inherently bad as an idea, just in current practice. Scotland will beat England 7-0 in the World Cup final before this happens, probably, but this could be a hugely positive process. If FIFA actually worked with potential hosts in genuine good faith to help fund needed infrastructure improvements, to build stadiums, if necessary, and to only accept proposals which agree to do this in a sustainable way which doesn’t disrupt ordinary people’s lives unreasonably without costing tax-payers too much. Of course it’s possible – those with the coffers have no interest in them being lighter though.
Controversy, and players diving, or acting aggressive is no existential threat to the game, but the continuous inflation of ticket and jersey prices, and the ongoing process of excluding the working classes from the magic of the game is. We can trust the fans, we can trust the players and all of their personal flaws; it’s just those with power in football that we can’t, and that is the real existential threat to the game.