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VAR is another referee in more than one sense

Sunday 18th February 2018
Juan Mata not scoring
Juan Mata not scoring

I distinctly remember learning to ride a bike. It was very much like the FA and Premier League’s implementation of VAR. Which is to say it was accomplished through both pain and embarrassment.

My Canadian stepfather taught me one weekend while we were visiting his sister in the country. His method was very similar to how he taught me to swim. For that, he just threw me off the dock and fished me out until I could do so on my own. Which I miraculously managed after he threatened not to come in after me anymore.

This time, he put me on my cousin’s oversized bike, gave me a shove, watched me fall, then helped me up. Rinse, lather, repeat. With my swimming lessons fresh in my memory, I knew we would continue until I stopped falling. Not wishing to spend my life healing from road rash, I made a determined effort.

Suddenly, I was wobbling down the road like a drunken Lance Armstrong. I was elated. Then I realised I was on a dirt road, flanked by ditches, that was coming to an abrupt end at a steel barrier in another 200 feet or so and I did not know how to stop.

My stepdad later swore he told me to just pedal backwards but I must have forgotten. I had three choices: the steel barrier, a ditch, or the group of stainless steel garbage bins huddled at the end of the final driveway. I chose the bins.

The story does not end there, although I temporarily did. One cousin was already grown, married, and living next door to my aunt. That night, the adults were playing cards when the beer ran out. I was dispatched to fetch more from my cousin’s refrigerator. Only, no one thought to mention she was having an inground pool installed and that there was a gaping pit in her unlit backyard. You can see where this is going. Unfortunately, I could not.

I yelled until my voice was raw, but sound apparently doesn’t bend that well and the music was on in my aunt’s place. They came looking for me when everyone was too parched to play another hand. Naturally, they wanted to know what I was doing in the hole, as if the whole thing was my fault.

Which brings us back to implementing VAR in English football. This is a process much more complicated than learning to swim, ride a bicycle, or walk in the dark, yet fans and media alike seem to think the FA and Premier League should have it right from the very beginning. I’m sorry, but life just doesn’t work that way. There is a learning curve. Sometimes that curve ends in a mass of garbage bins. Other times it takes you to a very dark place.

In assigned video assistant Neil Swarbrick’s case, the dark place also had broken lines when straight ones were needed. Personally, I can imagine him yelling into his mic that he was in a bad spot and needed help. At least Kevin Friend could hear him.

Finally, Swarbrick chose to delete the jagged lines from his monitor, then make an educated guess whether Juan Mata was on or offside. Images produced after his decision suggest he guessed correctly.

One problem is he should not have guessed. If he didn’t have a conclusive view that compelled him to overrule the linesman on the pitch he should have stated as much, and let the call stand.

Of course, the other problem is had he done so, he would now be vilified by Huddersfield fans using the same images that vindicate his choice. In that context, VAR is no different than a human referee. It is always going to leave someone extremely unhappy.

VAR is not a human referee, however. It is both a tool and a technique. It needs to be learned, like riding a bicycle or swimming, before the user becomes proficient. And again, until the user does become adept in its use, the outcome will sometimes be painful and embarrassing.

Yet, the struggle is no reason to discard VAR. In these often oversensitive times, many people would be shocked my stepfather would throw me in the water or allow me to keep falling off a bike, risking injury. They might label it abuse. Yet, he knew I would only learn through trial and error.

The abuse would have been him telling me to give up, that I was incapable of learning how to do something millions already could. VAR is already being used by other major sports. It isn’t perfect, but it’s far more accurate than first impressions to the naked eye. There will be growing pains that deliver awkward, uncoordinated episodes. There will be garbage bins, and yawning pits waiting in the dark. But VAR will grow into a functional, useful tool. Just like me.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.


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