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Waleed Aly: How Video Reviews Are Ruining Sport

We are slowly eroding the art, the magic, the drama, the tragedy of sport. 

Let me be clear: I think it was probably a penalty. Socceroo defender Josh Risdon definitely clipped Antoine Griezmann in the penalty box.  Did he get the ball first, making the challenge legal?  I didn’t think so.  If the referee had decided to award it to France on the spot I would have had no argument.  But he didn’t.  And I had the wonderful feeling of relief for about a minute, until that decision was reversed.  In the process we became the first country in World Cup history to be on the wrong end of a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) decision.  And I have a problem with it because I think everywhere you look – with the exception of tennis and perhaps cricket – it’s ruining sport.

The point of video refereeing is to remove the howler: the decision so inexplicably poor it is simply unbearable to let it stand.  Whatever your sport – cricket, rugby league, Australian rules – the aim is to leave the official’s decision standing unless there’s what FIFA calls a “clear and obvious error”. I’ve watched that penalty replay countless times.  I still can’t tell with total certainty whether or not Risdon touched the ball.  If the referee made an error, it definitely wasn’t clear and obvious.

Referee Andres Cunha awards a penalty after consulting a VAR review, as Robbie Kruse of Australia protests the decision. As do I. Image: Getty.

What timing, too, coming at the end of the week when the AFL’s own boss declared even he was “pissed off” with the way that game’s video score review system was working.  That followed the astonishing case where the video umpire actually introduced a howler in the recent Brisbane v Essendon game – overruling a correct decision with one that wasn’t even supported by the video evidence.  It was the last straw, really, in a season where some perplexing video review decision seems to have happened every week.  In that regard, the AFL has only just caught up with the NRL, where the “Bunker” has lived mostly in infamy.

The problem is that human nature means video referees simply cannot resist fixing every error they see.  The thought of letting what is probably an error stand, maybe even decide a match, is simply too much to stomach.  Soon enough they overturn decisions that are merely questionable.  Then ones that are quite defensible.  Then there will be other decisions that simply aren’t reviewed for no obvious reason – like the penalty that Argentina should have received against Iceland, just a couple of hours after the Socceroos game, that wasn’t even reviewed.  Ultimately, we end up with a system that creates just as many questions as it answers, only the new questions are more infuriating than the old ones.

That’s because this all comes from a false promise that technology will solve our problems.  So when something that exists only to eliminate errors produces them, when something that is meant to offer machine-like consistency becomes inconsistent, it’s intolerable.  On some level we find straight up human error easier to accept.

Take the disastrous mistake in this year’s A-League Grand Final, when Melbourne Victory was awarded a goal that should have been called offside.  In a match without VAR, it becomes just another refereeing mistake: unfortunate, but common.  But because the video was involved (and the vision failed at the crucial moment) it became an inquisition, generating ridiculous commentary that the whole match should be replayed.  That’s why, even though video refereeing does result in more correct decisions overall, it lives in so much sports talk as a point of controversy, often bemoaned by fans.

The errors won’t go away.  Most decisions require an interpretation of events – “was the contact forceful enough, or intentional, or avoidable?” for example – rather than simple matters of fact.  And because video is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world, it is full of illusions.  That’s why different camera angles can give you such opposite impressions of what happened.

Referee Kevin Friend waits for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system during the Emirates FA Cup quarter final match at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea. Image: Getty.

It’s obvious that incorrect refereeing decisions can have a huge impact on a game.  What’s almost never appreciated is that stopping the game for minutes at a time can have a huge impact, too.

Earlier this year I was watching my Tigers play Melbourne at the MCG.  A Melbourne shot at goal was off target and a Richmond player marked the ball right on the goal line.  The goal umpire was unsure whether it had crossed, so the game was paused while the video reviewer checked to see if it had gone through for a behind, or was marked in the field of play.  Eventually, no score was awarded, which I suppose was good for my team.  But thanks to the delay, Melbourne had plenty of time to set up their defence, meaning Richmond would find it much harder to move the ball forward.  As a Richmond fan, I would have much preferred the wrong decision to have been made quickly.  Melbourne would get a point they shouldn’t have, but we could get the ball moving before Melbourne could stop us.  Who knows?  It might have cost us a goal.

Might put the kettle on while I'm waiting for these AFL umpires to decide. Image: Getty

Or take the bizarre Liverpool v West Brom game in the FA Cup this year, in which the VAR was used three separate times.  In each case the decision was correct, but it was still labelled a farce afterwards because players were waiting on the pitch for around four minutes on one occasion.  The result was more than just a ruined spectacle.  According to West Brom’s (victorious) manager Alan Pardew, standing still for lengthy periods in the freezing cold created serious problems: “You're going from high tempo work rate to nothing. We had a hamstring just after that”.  That has the potential to affect not only one match, but several.

But the worst of it is that by subjecting sport to the technical world in search of this false utopia, we’re slowly eroding the art, the magic, the drama, the tragedy of sport.

As a fan, there is nothing more precious than that moment when a huge try is scored, a goal is kicked, a wicket is taken.  These are moments of enormous release, made by the agonising tension that precedes them.  To have that moment taken away while we wait for confirmation – or worse, reversal – is messing with the best of what we have.  I’ve just about stopped celebrating tries in the NRL now, because I simply expect it to go to the Bunker.  So many great moments now tempered when they should be unbridled.

We’d be better off learning that perfection is impossible.  Remembering that for all the pain they can cause, contentious decisions make up so much of the folklore of our sports.  Recognising that sport’s magic is in its rhythm, and we toy with it at our peril.  If we’re going to rely on technology, it should be limited to matters of fact only – not interpretation – and to situations that can be resolved quickly enough not to alter the flow of the game.  That’s why it works in tennis.  That’s why it’s tolerable in cricket.  And it’s also why it works so rarely anywhere else.