Be Careful What You Wish For: Is Video Technology Ruining Sport?

In the 1986 Football World Cup Quarter-Final between England and Argentina, Diego Maradona, one of the smaller players on the pitch, out-jumped England’s six-foot-plus goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, to score a goal that put Argentina 1-0 ahead. But what was seen by many in the crowd and millions watching worldwide on television was that the reason Maradona was able to out-jump Shilton was that he used his hand to knock the ball past the England goalkeeper. Unfortunately, two key people failed to see that: the referee and the linesman closest to the incident. The goal stood and there were cries of outrage (especially in England) asking why the referee couldn’t have access to a video replay, so that he could have seen what millions of others already knew.

England fans were to feel aggrieved again over an error by a referee in the World Cup of 2010, when a long-range shot by Frank Lampard beat the German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer (who, ironically, was born in 1986), hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced down well into the goal, before the spin on the ball brought it back into the arms of Neuer who played on. Again, the referee and linesmen missed what had happened and instead of the score being 2-2 Germany continued to lead 2-1 and went on to win 4-1.

On this occasion, the Germans permitted themselves a wry smile, saying that fate had intervened as they still maintained that England’s third goal in the World Cup Final of 1966 against West Germany had not crossed the goal line but a goal was given on the word of the linesman. England went on to win 4-2, the fourth goal being scored when, in the famous words of the legendary commentator, Kenneth Wolsthenhome, ‘some people are on the pitch’, which should have meant that the game was stopped.

And so the clamour increased for football to follow the lead already given by other sports and introduce video technology. Various experiments were tried, such as the ludicrous idea that the Football Association came up with in 2018-19 that if an FA Cup tie were played at a Premier League ground there would be the Video Assistant Referee (VAR); but if it were at the ground of an English League team it would not be used. This led to the eventual winners of the trophy, Manchester City, scoring two goals which VAR would have ruled out against Swansea City in a 3-2 win in the Quarter-Final.

Despite misgivings about the VAR system, the English Premier League announced that it would be introduced in all Premier League games in the 2019-20 season. In the first round of matches what would have proved the winning goal for Wolves at Leicester was ruled out after a VAR check established that the ball had struck the arm of a Wolves player before the ball was put into the net. The game ended 0-0.

Since then there has been much controversy over the VAR system, much comment being critical. Matters reached something of a head on the weekend of the tenth round of matches, 25-27 October. On the 26th, Brighton were awarded a penalty against Everton because the VAR official reckoned that Michael Keane had fouled Brighton’s Aaron Connolly in the penalty area. The official report on the Premier League website reads: the VAR spotted a foul by Michael Keane on Aaron Connolly. Football fans are not renowned for always being objective, of course. But if you take a look at the incident on TV, in normal time and in slow motion, you see that both Keane and Connolly are watching the flight of the ball coming towards them in the air and in moving to make a header, Keane accidentally treads on Connolly’s foot. It is clearly an accident. Keane is looking at the ball, not his or Connolly’s feet. Football is a contact sport. That was not a penalty.

The following day in the Arsenal V Crystal Palace match at the Emirates Stadium the referee, Martin Atkinson, initially booked Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace for diving to try to win a penalty, before VAR ruled – correctly – that it was a penalty. This was one of four penalties to be awarded in this round of matches because of VAR – but the only one where the referee on the pitch had made a clear mistake.

And this is the crux of the matter: VAR is supposed to be there to correct clear mistakes by the referee. And certainly not for what happened later in the same match. With just minutes left, Arsenal scored what would have been a third and probably decisive goal (the score at the time was 2-2). One minute and twenty seconds after the ‘goal’ was scored, Mr Atkinson was alerted that the VAR official was reviewing the goal. Almost two minutes after the ball entered the net he was instructed to disallow the goal for a foul by an Arsenal player in the build-up to the goal. As Peter Crouch later said on ‘Match of the Day2’ on the BBC, ‘I’ve seen it 406 times and I can’t see anything clear and obvious about that!’

The situation was reminiscent of an incident in the Rugby World Cup Semi-Final between England and New Zealand a little over 24 hours previously in Japan. England thought that they had scored a second try after the ball emerged from a maul and Ben Youngs went over. The Television Match Official (TMO as they call it in rugby) ruled that there had been a knock-on in the maul; but it certainly wasn’t clear and obvious.

What these incidents have shown is that the VAR/TMO officials are behaving like little tin gods, deciding that they know better than the referee on the pitch, the players and the spectators in the stands who – in football especially – are kept in total ignorance of what is going on.

As someone who was a qualified tennis umpire and football referee I know that the worst thing you can accuse a sporting official of being is ‘a cheat’. And I would not wish to question their objectivity (although the official report on the disallowed Arsenal goal stated that it was the VAR official’s ‘subjective view’ that there had been a foul, which is a curious phrase, given that he is supposed to pick up only clear and obvious errors). But it does seem that the power the TV monitor gives them has gone to their heads. These decisions may not be cheating. But they are becoming ever more stupid.


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