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VAR doesn’t understand soccer’s unwritten rules

The penalty early in England-Scotland illustrates just how unnatural it is to get a call “right” in soccer.

England v Scotland: Group D - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Another World Cup game, another minute or so spent staring at replays and trying to guess what conclusion the referee will come to. In the 14th minute of England-Scotland, Nicola Docherty was found to have committed the grave and serious infraction of a handball inside the box, and so England got the chance to jump start their World Cup campaign from the spot. Nikita Parris takes one hell of a penalty.

So, who wants to talk about VAR some more? Good, good. Let’s go.

The latest tweaks to the handball law require that a defender, in order to be punished, be using their arms to make their bodies unnaturally bigger. Here, at full speed, Docherty appeared to be guilty, albeit only in the sense that having arms — weird twitchy sticks of meat and bone, sticking out from the shoulders, dangling around all over the place — amounts to a deliberate interposition by the body into the world.

Sure, on replay it looked weird, but all human movement looks weird on replay. It is one of the oddities of VAR — of sports consumption in general, come to think of it — that slow-motion replay is presumed to reveal hidden truth, rather than add another layer of mystification.

Yes, slo-mo can show whether or not a ball has touched an arm. But in the process of uncovering that technicality it renders all the surrounding movements utterly alien. Handballs look awful in two aspects: they become ponderous actions, and so perhaps deliberate, while simultaneously seeming strange and therefore unnatural. Footballers move at full speed but are judged at half.

At any rate, we can probably say that Docherty wasn’t actively trying to save the thing, yet she has been punished as if she had been. Perhaps the safest way for defenders to proceed is to have their arms behind their backs at all times in the penalty area, to fight the presumption of unnatural bigness with aggressively contrived smallness. That unnatural pose is bad, this one is good, for arms are treacherous, it seems, and at slow speeds they will betray you. Get them out of the way.

Thinking more generally about VAR, one of the odd wrinkles is that it serves to remove such incidents, particularly handballs, from the general flow of the game. You enjoy them, when they go your way. But you don’t always feel like your lot have earned them.

Instead of being something that one side has forced, or a mistake that this or that player has made, a penalty becomes a pronouncement from above, dropped down into the game to keep things spicy. A Disceptator ex machina, if Google Translate is to be believed.

It would be unfair to call them whimsical, and they are certainly not random, but at the same time they feel somehow external. Hyper-close, ultra-pedantic readings that couldn’t exist without the technology and so, in some sense, are entirely of the technology.

The ritual of the whole thing increases this feeling. The referee makes their excuses and trots off the field of play — over the touchline, out of the game — to consult the visions of the oracle. Did nobody even think of the optics?

And thinking more generally still, perhaps the most important consequence of VAR will be the collapsing of one of football’s great unacknowledged conventions. All football fans are familiar with the complaint that “Anywhere else on the pitch that’s a foul.” Usually this comes as a maladroit defender clatters through the back of an attacker inside the box, and the referee shakes their head and does that weird double-arm sweep that referees love so much.

This convention is built on the understanding, widely shared but generally kept quiet, that some fouls just don’t deserve to lead to a penalty. Goals are rare and precious, and penalties are almost always goals. For years and years, football has operated happily on the presumption that a good deal of what happens in the box will be ignored because, frankly, it’s not worth blowing a game apart for. A moment’s clumsiness here. A faint tickle on the hand there. Unnoticed, with a wink and a nod. Let the crime fit the punishment.

VAR, bless its pitiless gaze, does not wink. And so we are now in a time where everything that happens in the penalty area actually happens, slowly and under great scrutiny. This, frankly, is a chaotic prospect. And while it won’t be much consolation for Scotland or Docherty, they aren’t the first team to fall foul of football’s new hyper-attention to the penalty area. And they certainly won’t be the last.