Have you ever uncorked a champagne bottle and then tried to re-cork it?

Yep, it’s an almost impossible task, akin to futile attempts to unring the bell.

Yet, that’s exactly what sports fans are being forced to do these days – rewind or undo their celebrations and spontaneous outpouring of emotions as new evidence emerges.

The recourse and deference to technology for adjudication of on-field action has taken a fair amount of spectator enjoyment out of sport, especially football.

Technological interventions designed to eliminate human error have divested spectator sport of human emotion and spontaneity.

Decisions made by on-field officials are scrutinized, upheld, revised or overturned, all done in the quest for fairness.

Now, I’m all for the pursuit of fairness, but at what price?

The good old imperfect days

When you see the forensic dissection of pieces of on-field action, frame by frame to the minutest detail, it’s really difficult not feel nostalgic about the “good old days” when the referee’s decision, right or wrong, was final.

Back then we accepted the fallibility of match officials as part of the beautiful game. We railed against poor officiating decisions, the fodder for post-match pub banter. And then we moved on.

We subscribed to the view that unfair decisions evened themselves out over the course of the season. So we embraced match officials as fallible but honest professionals doing their best in the circumstances.

The morality of money

Yes, the game of football must keep evolving. However, it is demonstrable that a good deal of the evolution is driven by the commercialization of the game. There is a lot (money) riding on the outcome of matches to leave all decisions to the on-field referee and the two assistants running the lines.

So it is that goals given by on-field officials and celebrated wildly by fans in real time are chalked off by VAR moments later. Yellow cards handed out by the referee are either upheld, rescinded or upgraded to red cards. Penalties not given by the referee are awarded on the advice of VAR. And penalties awarded by the referee are subjected to VAR interrogation before being ratified or reversed.

Adjudication by technology has all but usurped humans. The human element has almost been completely taken out of the game.

It’s a roller-coaster of emotions for the fans who have had to unlearn old ways of watching football. They now understand that when a goal has been scored, celebrated and given by the referee, there is a good chance it will be chalked off on review.

So, we are inhibited in our celebrations because the minute the ball hits the back of the net, unless it’s from the penalty spot, something gnaws at the back of our minds that the joy could be short-lived.

Nowadays, more often than not, we celebrate a goal, not once, but twice, first in real time and the delayed, by however long, upon VAR  confirmation of the legality of the goal.

The rough with the smooth

Appreciating the VAR positives and the attendant annoyances is a delicate emotional balancing act. For that deflating feeling occasioned by VAR yanking away a goal you had already celebrated with unbridled joy and with every sinew in your body is the relief of the opposition set of fans.

The interruptions, the frame-by-frame examination of tackles and offside decisions, the delayed restarts, all impact the spectator experience.

The technology-based officiating regime also dictates that we hold our horses, suspend our excitement, hold our breath and wait for confirmation of the legality of the goal scored before we start crowing.

Don’t count your chickens

A punter friend was so sure he had a winning ticket. When he went to the betting shop to redeem his winnings he was told it wasn’t a winning bet.

How was that possible? He had followed live score updates on his usual reliable page and Team X had scored a last-minute goal with virtually the last kick of the match to give him a winning bet.

It turns out the goal was chalked off by VAR for offside after a lengthy forensic examination. In his excitement, the punter had not waited for the VAR fat lady to sing.

VAR has taught us never to count our chickens before they hatch and to double-check when they appear to have hatched.

Usurped by technology

Technology has all but usurped on-field officials and I’m rather conflicted about it.

I understand in instances where something untoward happens off the ball and the on-field official is alerted to it, asked to review on the pitch-side monitor and then makes a decision. But asking referees to review passages of play they have already seen and judged in real time remains a sore point among some purists and traditionalists.

The old football rule that officials should err on the side of the attacking team in touch-and-go offside situations was widely accepted as fair. It has been binned with the advent of officiating by technology. These days if a player’s toe nail strays offside then the goal will be ruled out. A few contenders for goal of the season have fallen foul of this change.

The scale is now weighted heavily in favour of an exaggerated sense of fairness, a dogged pursuit of error-free officiating to ensure that no team is prejudiced by a wrong decision.

There is a lot to be admired about VAR and quite a few virtues to extoll about similar technological innovations, but there’s no denying that the game has also been hollowed out, divested of its soul by these interventions.

It is not for me to say whether VAR has changed the football spectator experience for better or worse. Suffice to say, the experience is no longer what it used to be.


I'm Barrie Jarrett, born in Leeds, lived over a decade in South Africa, CEO And Co Founder of Planet Sport Limited and Planet Bet Limited.

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