Humanity's confident march into its technological future took another stride forward in March, as the progress of an international football match was determined not by a man with a whistle, as is traditional, but a multi-million dollar artificial intelligence developed in secret by FIFA over the last seven years. The AI, codenamed "VAR,” was given oversight of France's friendly against Spain and ruled out two goals …
[an aide bursts through the door and whispers in your correspondent's ear]
… oh. This is embarrassing. Apparently it was a man looking at a television.
But that's still weird. Because football's ideological war over the rightness or wrongness of technology may not quite be at the fevered pitch of Computer Nerds vs. The Barbarians, but it's not far off.
Just a month after this match between France and Spain, FIFA confirmed that video technology would be coming to the World Cup.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino says video assistant referees will be used at the World Cup for the first time at 2018 tournament in Russia— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) April 26, 2017
Broadly speaking, those in favor point — with some justification — to the fact that being or assisting a referee is a monumentally difficult business. It requires an individual to make split second interpretations of complex rules while running around quite a lot. At higher levels, this is soundtracked by thousands of people loudly questioning their competence, their neutrality, and their parentage; at lower, it's just the few hundred. And the players, either way.
They also point to the fact that an incorrect decision on serious matters such as goals, red cards, and the award of penalties is immediately obvious to those watching on television. And they conclude — again, with some justification — that since television companies are hanging around football stadiums anyway, they should be able to get that information to the officials. Possibly via some kind of screen.
After all, what is a referee but somebody looking for the truth of what's happened? To deny referees easily available support in that search is to risk incorrect decisions being made. And mistakes are not fair. Offside players don't get to kick the ball in the net, and their teams don't get to take the lead. That's what we have all these rules for.
Those against tend to agree with all the above, generally, but place far less of a premium on that final point. Instead, they point to a whole range of counterpoints that we can probably group together under the concept of flow.
In part, this is the flow of the game itself. There was just under a minute between Antoine Griezmann scoring his 'goal' for France and the referee, in consultation with VAR, ruling it out. During that minute, while the Spanish side stood around waiting, Griezmann had gone through his celebration and accepted the praise of his teammates, while the stadium announcer had boomed out "ANTOINE!" and received "GRIEZMANN!" in reply.
The whole world was moving into a future where France had the lead, adjusting expectations and opinions accordingly. Then, just for a moment, everything was in limbo. And finally — brutally, suddenly, mechanically — we were jerked back into a different reality.
An example of how video assistant refs could be used going forward...— ITV Football (@itvfootball) March 28, 2017
Griezmann scores but the video ref rules it out for offside: pic.twitter.com/r0IswV6EyI
It was a little weird, from a neutral perspective. For Griezmann, for the France team, for those watching in the stadium, it must have been extremely discombobulating. Where to put all that serotonin? Who to shout at?
But there's also the wider flow of the metagame, of all the nonsense that surrounds football. As Half Man Half Biscuit put it in The Referee's Alphabet, "M is for the mistakes we sometimes make. Surely a bit of controversy is part of the game’s appeal?" As a supporter, nobody likes being on the wrong end of a bad decision. But it is, or at least always has been until now, an inherent part of the sporting experience. One of the many burdens that comes along with the rare moments of grace.
There is pleasure to be had, too. There is the imaginative drift into what might have been, if only that incompetent whistle-happy jobsworth hadn't stepped in. There is the consolation of knowing that you weren't beaten, only robbed. And there is the strange, impure joy that comes from a player getting away with a truly magnificent piece of cheating. A world in which the Hand of God had been ruled out might well have been a fairer one. But it wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun.
The idea that football should be subject to the whims, inconsistencies, and occasional incompetence of its officials is, at heart, a romantic notion. It eschews the technocratic tyranny of what actually happened in favor of the chaos of what was seen to happen, what should have happened, and what would have happened had what should have happened, happened. So to speak. Like all romantic things it is also, secretly, a little bit stupid.
And like all romantic things, it is doomed. Technology is coming, at least to the televised games. Goal line sensors are already here, and the VAR trials appear to be working nicely. After the game, France manager Didier Deschamps welcomed football's new robotic overlords; on the other side of the globe, Trinidad & Tobago were getting stiffed by a VAR-less referee. The future, it seems, will be a fairer place, if just a little flatter.