Liverpool, V.A.R. and the Problem With Process

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There are very few coherent sentences in what will, in time, doubtless come to be known as the Luis Díaz Tape, a sort of Premier League equivalent to the Zapruder film. The various protagonists communicate in clipped and meaningless phrases, any clarity sacrificed on the altar of self-important brevity.

The tape lasts only two minutes, and while it is not a particularly thrilling video — a group of faceless voices discussing procedure while staring at screens, advancing resolutely toward a presaged outcome — it is, by turns, tense and frustrating and never less than compelling.

It is best considered, really, as a character drama. The setting is this: Díaz, the Liverpool forward, has just scored to put his team ahead against Tottenham Hotspur. The goal is ruled out, on the field, for offside. A few miles away, in a building at Stockley Park west of London, the Premier League’s Video Assistant Referee studio whirs into action.

Darren England, the game’s designated V.A.R., wants to check if the goal should be allowed to stand. He commands that the footage be rewound and paused and decorated with a line. He determines that, no, Díaz had timed his run perfectly. “That’s fine, perfect,” he says to his colleagues in the video room and to Simon Hooper, the on-field official. “Check complete.”

It is here that everything unravels. The goal should count, but England seems to have declared that the original call — no goal — is “perfect.” “Well done, boys; good process,” Hooper mutters. Tottenham restarts the game with a free kick. A couple of pregnant seconds pass by. Nobody seems to have noticed the non sequitur. The audience, though, knows.

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Credit…Peter Cziborra/Action Images, via Reuters

At this point, the hero enters. Mo Abby is not a qualified referee; he is the technological specialist, present to operate the video equipment while the officials issue their expert judgments. “Are you happy with this?” he asks, a hint of nervousness in his voice, as if he knows he is stepping outside his role.

Now, it all goes to pieces. The precise nature, the exact scale, of the error is suddenly clear to England and Dan Cook, his assistant. Another outsider, Oli Kohout — the hub operations manager, which is not a title that can be pithily explained — suggests pausing the game and allowing Hooper to correct the mistake.

England is the one with the power to make that call. In the inevitable dramatization, it is at this point that the camera will focus intently on his face. His eyes will betray his panic, his fear, his dawning realization of his powerlessness. His voice, though, does not. The game has resumed. “Nothing I can do,” he says, again and again, with surprising conviction, his hubris sealing his fate.

It is this that is, in truth, most troubling about the incident at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The last week has been rife with false equivalences. When the Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, suggested that the most sporting consequence of the mistake would be for the game itself to be replayed, the response was predictable. Should we replay the 1966 World Cup final? Argentina’s defeat of England in 1986? The 2019 Champions League final? That game last year where my team was on the end of a disputed, subjective call?

The difference should not need to be spelled out, but since we are here: Plenty of teams have been the victims of errors no less consequential than the one that cost Liverpool last Saturday. In almost all of those cases, though, those decisions were made in good faith. The officials believed they were right. They did not press ahead in the clear, undisputed knowledge that they were wrong.

There are plenty of reasons to be object to the existence, or at least the application, of V.A.R. It interrupts the rhythm of games. It diminishes the experience of watching soccer in a stadium, allowing the nature of the action to be determined remotely, by some apparently unaccountable external force. It creates and enforces an expectation of perfection that is impossible to attain and will, therefore, be a source of eternal disappointment.

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Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Díaz tape, though, is a perfect distillation of what may be the most significant objection to V.A.R. Darren England’s response, both plaintive and brash — “nothing I can do” — is rooted in a belief that what matters, above all, is the correct implementation of protocol. The rules, the sainted Laws, decree that once a game has restarted, it cannot be stopped. Errors are material reality. The referee’s decision is final, even when it is known to be wrong.

This is indicative of what V.A.R. has done to soccer. Recently retired officials have a cloying tendency to lionize the days when they could apply what is known, euphemistically, as “game management.” Generally, this means referring to players by their nicknames, indulging in a false and unreciprocated chumminess, and allowing the more famous participants in a game rather more leeway than their lesser colleagues.

Such an approach is, of course, flawed, but it is perhaps preferable to the technologically induced alternative, which is a world in which any form of discretion has been almost entirely removed. Quite how much soccer has shifted to allow itself to be adjudicated from afar is overlooked worryingly frequently.

The most obvious example of this is handball, the definition of which seems to change with the seasons. The motivation behind this is not an attempt to hew closer to the spirit of the game, but to make it possible for a decision to be made on a screen.

There are others, though. The shifting thresholds for red and yellow cards and the shrinking border between reckless and malicious are both inspired by the need to make an objective decision, one that does not rely on any human allowance for context or intent.

This is the atmosphere in which referees now function, one in which they are not there to apply the rules as they see fit, but in which the rules are unyielding and inflexible and do not brook any interpretation. It is a world in which what matters is not whether anything makes any sense, but in which protocol — officious and unapologetic and blind — is king.

This search for absolutism has led, ironically, to a sense of greater arbitrariness. That, in the aftermath of the Díaz incident, almost every club could pick out a litany of its own injustices in the recent past was designed to illustrate that Liverpool’s response was somehow excessive or self-pitying. Instead, it highlighted more than anything how fractured fans’ belief in the fair implementation of the Laws of the Game — always portentously capitalized — has become.

Nobody is quite sure what the rules are anymore, because they have a tendency to change so often. This week, this is a handball and the referees are clamping down on time-wasting or players who demand yellow cards, and next week they are not.

Decisions are imposed without adequate explanation by an officiating body that has issued 14 formal apologies since the start of last season but seems still, for some reason, convinced of its infallibility. The letter of the law is applied rigorously, but the spirit of it has been lost almost entirely. And the feeling that follows is the same as that which can be detected in the Luis Díaz tape: a sense of unmitigated frustration, of wild confusion, of total powerlessness. There is nothing Darren England can do, and in that he is no different from the rest of us.

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Credit…Tomas Cuesta/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is to Gianni Infantino’s credit, really, that he resisted the temptation to announce the location of the 2030 World Cup in the style of Oprah Winfrey giving out cars. Spain: You get a World Cup. Portugal: You get a World Cup. Morocco, Uruguay, Argentina and, for reasons that will have to be explained later, Paraguay: You can all have a World Cup, too.

The FIFA president will insist that this plan is perfectly sensible. Admirable, even. Hosting the tournament across three continents, Infantino explained on Wednesday, sends a message of “peace, tolerance and inclusion.” It means spreading the financial burden of a 48-team tournament, and by consequence sharing the joy.

There is even just a hint of romance. South America has long believed it would be fitting if the World Cup’s centenary edition took place back where it all began: in Uruguay, the host of the 1930 tournament, and Argentina, the losing finalist.

It had looked for some time, though, as if that might be impossible. Even with their resources pooled, the South American bidders did not possess the infrastructure — specifically the stadiums — to meet FIFA’s exacting requirements.

Infantino’s solution — handing the tournament’s opening three fixtures to Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Asunción and then shifting the rest of the tournament to the Pillars of Hercules — will doubtless be sold as an ingenious compromise. That this plan effectively clears the path for the 2034 tournament to go to Asia, and to Saudi Arabia, is obviously just a coincidence.

At this stage, all of this is still just an idea. The plan still has to be ratified by a vote of all 211 FIFA members next year. That it has been suggested at all, though, makes the organization’s ecological attitude abundantly clear. The 2022 World Cup might have been the single most environmentally damaging event ever staged. The 2026 edition is being held across a whole continent. The likelihood is that 2030 will take place across three.

That may be the most consequential objection, but there is something less tangible to be mourned here, too. Elite sports may now be a televisual event, dislocated and remote, but it is the connection to a place that lifts a World Cup into something beyond mere content to be consumed.

It is a chance for a country to go on hiatus, to revel in itself, to spend a month being swept away. That was true of Russia in 2018 and of Australia and New Zealand this year. It was that sense of proximity, the feel of a global carnival, that illuminated Qatar, far more than the stadiums. Spreading the World Cup around does not diffuse that. It dilutes it. Sure, everyone gets a little piece of it, but that does not have the same effect. Not at all.

Rory Smith is The Times’s chief soccer correspondent, based in Britain. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. More about Rory Smith

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