In many ways it was typical FA Cup fare. Third-tier Rochdale (of England’s League One) hosted top-tier Tottenham and held the biggies to a 1-1 draw. Since the FA Cup revels in tradition, rather than finishing things off right there with extra time or a penalty shootout, the teams met again 10 days later for a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home at Wembley Stadium. As often happens, the biggies didn’t slouch the at the second chance and throttled the plucky upstarts 6-1. It was not a game for the ages.
Nor was it a game where the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”) should have come in for much scrutiny. After all, Tottenham was clearly the superior side and deserved to advance. This wasn’t a game decided on a bad call. Alas, with VAR, it’s never that clean:
Its influence on Wednesday’s game at Wembley cannot be overstated.
At times, fans had no idea what was going on as the referee waited for instructions in his earpiece and the half-time whistle was greeted by a chorus of boos from home supporters.
Lamela’s early goal was disallowed after the VAR ruled Llorente had pulled Harrison McGahey’s shirt – but it took about a minute for the officials to reach their decision, by which time both teams had lined up for the game to restart.
After Son had fired Spurs ahead from 12 yards when he was afforded too much space, the hosts were awarded a penalty when Trippier was fouled by Matt Done. At first, the referee gave a free-kick on the edge of the area before pointing to the spot after another VAR delay.
Son scored from the spot but the celebrations were cut short when Tierney ruled it out without allowing it to be retaken because the South Korea forward, who was booked, had stopped in his run-up.
That sparked more jeers from fans as Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino looked on in disbelief.
Fortunately for the home side, it did not ruin their night.
In other words, VAR did precisely the thing that its detractors, me included (and don’t get my wife started!), have said from the very beginning – that it destroys the flow of the game, the constant action, for very little reward.
For Pochettino, it was all too much:
the first half was a little bit embarrassing for everyone. I think it’s difficult to keep focus on playing football. I am not sure that that system is going to help. I love the football as football was born. That is why we love the game that we know.
I think football, we are talking about emotion, the context of emotion. If we are going to kill the emotion then the fans, the people who love football, I don’t think are so happy about what they saw today.
He’s not wrong (hence the title of this post). The comeback to soccer’s detractors when they complain that there aren’t enough goals and such is that precisely because they’re so rare the actual moment of scoring (or being scored upon) is a rush. VAR detracts from that for precisely the reasons Pochettino lays out. It’s one thing to have an apparent goal waved off instantly because somebody was offside. To have to wait a few minutes to figure out what’s going on just sucks.
That’s the real problem with VAR (or replay in American football) – it makes some fundamental changes to the game in pursuit of something it can’t deliver: mistake-free officiating. There’s no VAR in the Premier League (yet), but during a game this weekend the announcers – all former players – poured over replays of a potential penalty and, amusingly but not surprisingly, came up with three different opinions on the correct call. It’s one thing to use technology to aid goal-line decisions, as it’s a bright line test. But most other decisions in the beautiful game are, to some extent, subjective and there are no right answers. Stopping the flow of the game cold to go in search of them is a fool’s errand.
But, not of this seems to matter much, as the momentum for VAR rolls on. This past weekend, The International Football Association Board, the folks responsible for crafting the Laws of the Game officially embraced VAR. It’s here to stay, unfortunately (starting with this summer’s World Cup).