In a couple of weeks, after everybody has calmed down and the USWNT have sobered up, a report will be released by the International Football Association Board, the body responsible for maintaining and tweaking the rules of soccer. This report will focus on the refereeing at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and will detail, in bland prose, how nice and accurate everything — nearly everything — was. Crucially, it will show that VAR helped. There will be percentages. Those percentages will glow. The number of correct decisions is up again this year!
Our collective memory of the tournament probably won’t reveal any concrete percentages nor graphs — The report will have graphs! — and so our memories obviously won’t be as trustworthy. But it will remind us of the weird bits during the tournament. Of the early stages, when any hand that so much as looked at a ball was punished. Of the contortions adopted by defenders, arms wrapped behind their backs in search of a natural position. Of the poor goalkeepers, terrified to leave their lines.
As a general rule, we can assume any system of rules enforcement that needed changing halfway through a tournament had been, at best, running a little hot. When FIFA made its adjustment, it made two important philosophical decisions, one official and one sub rosa.
The first was the panicked response to the flurry of yellow cards and retakes from penalties in the group stage. Bad enough that VAR was able to litigate goalkeeping encroachment with appallingly pedantic precision, and change offences from the fuzzy-but-fair “look, I saw you cheating” to the far more oppressive “look, the tape says you were three millimetres forward.”
But given that encroachment is for some reason a yellow card offence, this raised the hilarious possibility that goalkeepers might be sent from the field midway through a shootout, which would turn the game into farce after an outfield player stepped in and then got sent off as well, with the entire world pointing and laughing, or seething and sharpening their op-eds. This wouldn’t do. So FIFA implemented its tweak and said this particular rule of football would no longer apply during shootouts, because we don’t want to look silly.
As for the second, well, we’re guessing now, but it certainly felt like the referees, in concert with their VAR overlords, dialed things down in the later stages. Not totally — the penalty given to England against the USA was eiderdown-soft — but enough to feel distinct. Particularly on handballs: when the ball hit Kelley O’Hara’s hand late in the United States quarter-final, it was hard not to think, “Well, that’s never a penalty. But it would have been last week.”
So, by VAR’s late-tournament standards, early VAR was over-officious at best and grotesquely punitive at worst; by VAR’s early-tournament standards, later VAR was feckless and lackadaisical. Overall, it forced football into an uncomfortable confrontation with its own rulebook, particularly the fact that penalties, which are almost always goals, are quite important things that perhaps should not be meted out for minor infringements such as having the ball kicked at one’s arm. Consequently, the Premier League decided that their implementation of VAR in the coming season will be less strict, which suggests that the rules nerds are at war among themselves. When that happens, nobody wins.
On the plus side: only one team considered walking off the field in protest, and VAR probably didn’t make a difference to the outcome of the tournament. Hey, that report’s not just going to glow, it’s going to gleam.
But if VAR as a way to improve refereeing went strangely, VAR as experience was quite the thing. Whether by accident or by a spirit of mischief, football’s rules people have come up with a system that … well, let’s go through the VAR process step by step:
1. Something happens! Let’s say it’s a penalty shout, but the referee turns it down. Maybe they do that arm-sweep thing that for some reason means “No!”
2. Hang on, what’s this? The referee is hearing something in their ear. Let’s all just stand still for a moment.
3. Interesting! It needs another look. Off they trot to the little viewing booth …
4. Sensation! They’ve changed their mind! It’s a penalty after all.
You’ll note that at no stage does anybody else in the stadium have any idea what’s going on. The players are standing around on the pitch; the coaching staff can’t go near the viewing booth; the crowd have nothing to go on except “REVIEW”. Even the television viewers only have the replays, with no idea what anybody’s saying.
The only way this could look more conspiratorial is if the review was prompted by a man in a suit and sunglasses, cigarette in hand, wandering onto the pitch and whispering into the referee’s ear.
Happily, the stage dressing provides a nice counterweight to this sinister process. That the reviews are conducted by a clutch of referees sealed away in a room is already funny; that the referees all sit there in full kit is beyond perfect. Meanwhile, the poor on-field referee has to go through the saddest, loneliest game of charades: hand to ear, draw imaginary television, pop off to gaze at actual television, come back on, draw another imaginary television, point.
”Is it Penalty?” ask the crowd.
”No, it’s Corner,” replies the referee.
In short, VAR manages to feel like two things at the same time: something deeply unfair and maybe even corrupt, and something inherently and obviously farcical, performed by silly people in silly costumes. Which is pretty much the moment-to-moment experience of watching, playing, and following sport. Like getting mugged by a clown. They’ve nailed that, at least.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about VAR is we know it’s going to go one of two ways. We know that in, say, 15 years’ time it’s either going to be part of the fabric of the top-level game, as ordinary and unremarked upon as the backpass rule, or it’s going to be a thing of the past, a failed experiment we remember occasionally and laugh about, before returning to the serious business of insulting the referee.
If you feel confident choosing which of those will come to pass, well, good luck to you.