Manchester City have started the season on fire. A five-goal performance in the first match, Kevin de Bruyne back and firing on all cylinders, Raheem Sterling becoming even more prolific in front of goal and Sergio Aguero, well, doing what Sergio Aguero does. They outperformed last season's second-best team in Europe and got a draw, however, ask any City fan this week and they are likely to be in a sour mood.
“Games gone”, will be the likely answer if you ask their opinion on the football over the weekend. The culprit behind all of this is the Video Assistant Referee. Turn the clocks back a year, to the first few months of last season, when Wolves scratched a draw against City, courtesy of Wily Boly’s handball goal - City fans were in uproar, asking for VAR to be implemented as soon as possible, to stop City being on the wrong side of incorrect officiating decisions. What caused more hurt then was the way City had been eliminated from the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool, due to Sane’s goal just before half time being incorrectly ruled out.
What is interesting to see is how over the course of two seasons, Manchester City fans have vastly changed their opinion of VAR, from being largely in favour of it making the game more consistent and fair, to calling it “the end of the sport as we know it”.
This is largely because VAR, as a concept, is good. However, the way it is being implemented is wrong. Some of the rule changes, especially the amendment of the handball rule to include all handballs and not just the deliberate ones (Law 12), are a complete farce and the referees, on-field or video assistants, do not know what to make of it. For example, in the build up to Gabriel Jesus' goal ruled offside, both Aymeric Laporte and Oliver Skipp look to have touched the ball with their intertwined arms. Why rule out the goal when Skipp likely committed a penalty kick offence by the wording of the law as well. But, as the referees decided to choose, they favoured the defending team and not the attacking one.
Ironically VAR, which was supposed to bring consistency, is doing just the opposite by different interpretations of ambiguous new rules which the referees are unsure of how to implement. Due to the rule change occurring this summer, Fernando Llorente’s goal which knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League last season would’ve been ruled out under the current circumstances.
FIFA need to have a hard look at other sports using Video Assistance for refereeing, and maybe incorporate those methods to help make the transition smoother. Take the other football for example, NFL. They tried implementing Video Replay technology in 1985 but stopped using it after a few years because of technical problems in getting enough calls correct, and also due to the lengthy delays caused in games. Replays were introduced in 1996 with coaches having the ability to challenge up to three plays per half, and the referees having a limited amount of time, 90 seconds, to make the call. The number of challenges was later cut down to two per half and wrong challenges cost the coaches a timeout. This shifted the blame from the referees and made them less accountable for wrong calls and the coaches more responsible for making sure that they get a say in getting the on-field decisions correct.
This is similar to what is being done in cricket as well. The major difference in cricket is that the players on the pitch can take a call and the captain can signal when he wants to make a challenge for a specific decision. If the decision is overturned, the team retains the challenge and can take another one later in the innings, and if the decision stays and the challenge was incorrect, the team loses its challenge.
The people behind making the football decisions, the IFAB, recently said that it could take up to ten years to perfect VAR for implementation. This may not seem like as long a time in the big picture, but this time can not come at the expense of the soul of football. The sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, the instant, joyous release of tension from the body, the delirious celebrations on the pitch and also off it are as much a part of the sport as making sure that hands are not used in playing football. These are the things because of which I, a Manchester City fan from India, used to stay up till the early hours of the morning to watch Champions League matches and late kick-offs. This sport has carried me through the highs and lows of high school and college, my weekends committed to supporting the boys in blue and berating the ones in red, be it United or more recently, Liverpool.
It was always the common ground for conversations with people I met, instantly making friends with people who agreed how iconic 93:20 was. Now, as I start graduate school in the United States, I do not want VAR to be the reason for me to not turn on the alarm clock for matches. I want football back.
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