Premier League officials will tell you that the first weekend of VAR went well. The technology worked as it was supposed to, but there were a few issues that could have serious implications for fans.
Gabriel Jesus had a goal disallowed for Manchester City against West Ham after Raheem Sterling was ruled to be offside. Even though it was by the very slimmest of margins, it meant the first spoilt celebration in the Premier League and provoked some very ‘lively’ debate, especially on Match of the Day.
Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker could not agree on the use of VAR in that circumstance, with Wright and Lineker asking for ‘leeway’ and ‘common sense’. But if you start applying that for some decisions, you open the door to subjectivity with more decisions becoming contestable and controversial. That is great for studio pundits, but bad for football and referees.
But the real issue when Jesus ‘scored’ was that the City fans in the London Stadium celebrated with passion, as you do, before those cheers were stifled as the VAR check ran on and on. Finally, the cheers were replaced by West Ham fans roaring at the news of the goal being disallowed.
Celebrating a goal is traditionally an emotional experience when you can rejoice with a group of like-minded people because your team has done well. It is one of the best things in life, but could soon be ruined by VAR.
Being able to disallow a goal, not merely seconds, but perhaps minutes after it has been ‘scored’ is going to influence how fans celebrate. We will hold in the excitement as our brains tell us not to jump around and our hearts stay calm. Being a fan is about celebrating goals; the whole thing changes without it.
VAR decisions are likely to happen quicker once people have got used to the technology, but will they be fast enough to preserve that split second of explosive, unconfined joy? With VAR obliged to check on every goal, these decisions will be frequent.
This is a real problem, but it doesn’t apply to all fans equally. For example, those watching a game at home have replays to watch, slow motions to help them make their own decisions, and commentary on what is being checked. For the casual TV viewer, the drama of whether a goal will be given or not might even be enjoyable and add to the excitement. However, for those in the ground, they often aren’t sure what is being checked and must wait around in limbo for some sort of signal from the referee. Some will even be oblivious that a check for something has even taken place.
There was some good news though, as we shouldn’t have to put up with players being ‘clever’ in the box again. For example, Newcastle’s Miguel Almirón tried to con referee Martin Atkinson, by diving during the first half of the Toon’s 1-0 defeat against Arsenal. Atkinson called simulation and booked the Paraguayan forward. But even if Atkinson had missed it and given a penalty, VAR would have been obliged to check the challenge and would have spotted Almirón’s dive. So, it’s not all bad.