Stand by for robots! Refs will end up like bus drivers who don’t get to drive the bus
ANOTHER round of Premier League games, another round of bitching and moaning about referees and VAR.
But amid all the noise don’t forget this is what people wanted. They wouldn’t stop their complaining or excessive scrutiny of every decision, they wouldn’t stop whining and wailing about every error and this is the result: digital technology assisting referees — or perhaps inhibiting them and giving them a free pass to abdicate responsibility.
Managers, players, pundits and fans were so critical of officials’ mistakes that they were ultimately responsible for forcing VAR on the game, but they’re still not happy.
The irony is that VAR has created even more vitriol and disdain for officials. All of a sudden, people’s rage has moved from not accepting officials’ decisions on the pitch to not accepting officials’ decisions off the pitch. And, of course, digital technology has opened up more scope to re- evaluate various different conundrums, as we saw with Newcastle’s goal against Arsenal at the weekend and Cristian Romero’s red card and the subsequent Chelsea penalty at Tottenham on Monday. It’s the law of unintended consequences.
I was sympathetic towards Michael Oliver (below) during that chaotic Spurs versus Chelsea game. He was powerless, waiting for someone to impart some wisdom to him.
This current methodology cannot go on as it only leads to paralysis by analysis. The countless stoppages took too long to resolve and left fans at the stadium in the dark. But if a time limit was imposed, the argument would be that officials do not have enough time to make the correct call. They can’t win.
VAR was brought in to fix a problem, created in large part by the protagonists in the game, to help referees and reduce this endless decrying, demeaning, diminishing and questioning of them.
There was a belief that VAR would be a panacea where every decision would be correct, but it has compounded the problem and created bigger issues for officials, because now they’re expected to get every decision spot on. No one cares about the 99 decisions they get right, but if they make one mistake they’re bombarded with abuse. I have always been a firm advocate for VAR, but mischaracterisation of what it would achieve has led us to the point where there is even greater controversy.
It really should have been implemented in a far more pragmatic way. It should have been made clear that this is firstgeneration technology and there are going to be mistakes, but, ultimately, it will advance the game.
The attitude from officials should have been to evolve quickly, embrace the next generation of technology and bring people with them. The messaging should have been clearer and expectations of what could be achieved should have been managed better. For whatever reason, none of those things happened and we are left with the mess we find ourselves in.
I’m sure the game’s great thinkers (whoever they may be) gave due consideration to the challenges of VAR, but they cannot have envisaged this. The current operation is like a gaggle of traffic wardens looking at a bunch of TV screens in between putting the kettle on. It’s not good enough.
Now that football is embracing the digital era we need proper, schooled video analysis expertise. If we want medical scans analysed, we send them to a radiologist, not a substitute biology teacher.
I have always found this jumpers-for-goalposts attitude in football ridiculous. We’re talking about the biggest, most popular sport in the world and technology is something we should embrace. Every other sport utilises technology, so why not football?
The industry must remember it is in the entertainment business and that it has to bring its audience with it.
My natural inclination is to retain some of the behind-the-curtain Wizard of Oz mythology, but now we have opened the Pandora’s box of digital tricks, we need to involve the audience.
Make VAR a feature of the broadcast. Put managers and players into the VAR suite and turn it into a new frontier of opportunity, as well as providing better insight and outcomes.
Statistically, VAR has ensured more correct decisions are made but that’s still not enough for some. Sadly, we seem to allow feelings to trump educated analysis these days.
The answer then is for the game to go fully automated and, in time, that will be the inevitable outcome from all of this. Automated offsides and sensors all around the pitch, in the ball, on players’ shirts, everywhere.
If we want to achieve perfection we need the game to become fully automated, but if we’re not prepared to go that far then we must revert back to some sort of parallel universe where the referee makes on- field calls without technological help and everyone respects them.
We have this hokey- cokey situation where we’re half in, half out, but you’ve got to go all in. Now the door has been opened, the only way to close it is by fully embracing technology.
This is why people in football should be careful what they wish for. We’ve had Elon Musk recently telling anyone who will listen that artificial intelligence will put everyone out of jobs and it won’t be long before AI runs our game too if we carry on down this road. Referees will be like bus drivers who don’t actually drive the bus, they just make sure the passengers are sitting properly.
Of course, if we did end up with technology adjudicating every aspect of the game, managers would no doubt complain about whoever programmed the bloody computers!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a messenger boy for referees and the PGMOL — remember, I called for the Stockley Park fool to be fired after the Tottenham-Liverpool debacle.
I’m no apologist, but this is a circle that can never be squared unless we’re going to go the whole hog and make the game fully automated.
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