What Has Technology Done To Soccer?

Perfect referees are a soccer fan’s nightmare, it is increasingly appearing. From a report: The past four years have smoothed out some of those early kinks. Offside calls are now hyper-accurate and semiautomated. And VAR really has done some good: It has eliminated the worst officiating mistakes and ensured that we will not see another hand of God-type abomination, in which a particularly egregious bit of foul play somehow goes unspotted and changes the course of a match. Even so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a soccer fan who thinks VAR is great as is. The Ecuador-Qatar decision is a clear example of why. It was, in the narrowest, most annoying sense, the correct decision. To the naked eye, or even to those watching a television replay, the infraction was virtually invisible amid the chaos. But VAR spotted it.

Congratulations, officials — you got it right. But for what? Sports are, in the end, entertainment, and officiating must always be a balance between accuracy and watchability. If the former were our only and ultimate concern, we would put every potential infraction under the microscope … and the game would be utterly unwatchable. The plays that officials review — that they ought to review — are the ones where the call, if allowed to stand, would seem genuinely unfair. No one (except maybe the opposing team’s fans) likes to see a legitimate-looking goal disallowed. When Valencia’s header found the net, he and his teammates did not delay their celebration. The Qatari players did not turn to the referee in protest. The fans did not hesitate to lose their minds. Not even the commentators seemed to have considered the possibility that the goal might not stand, and so television audiences didn’t either. No one was asking for this. Had the game proceeded, no one would have thought twice.

VAR is useful only insofar as it makes soccer better for the fans. It can do that only if it can alert them that a check is under way soon enough and return a verdict fast enough that it doesn’t make celebrating goals impossible for fear of a reversal. It should rule out only those goals where, when you look back at the replay, people might reasonably think, Yeah, that’s offside. Some sort of modified tie-goes-to-the-runner rule would help here by eliminating the scourge of the “toenail offside.” You could even give the attacker a buffer of a foot or two.

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