Dear Football Commentator: VAR is NOT the Controversy; YOU Are

Earlier this week, I watched the phenomenal Man City vs Tottenham 2nd leg at the Etihad. The tie ended 4-3 to City with Spurs moving to the Semis on away goals rule. Despite the remarkable scoreline, one of the most obvious things that will come to anyone’s recollection about the game will be the use of VAR to decide two instances of goals – with one being awarded (Llorente), and another not awarded due to an offside (Sterling). While the decisions were correct, the way the commentators portrayed VAR and its role in the process has been very annoying – in this match and others. By commentators, I am referring to anyone with any significant influence and position who puts out opinions/commentary/articles etc. So this includes live commentary personnel, football writers, twitter celebrities, fan blog writers, etc.

Situations like Sterling’s goal being negated for a missed offside decision are the exact kind of decisions that the VAR was brought in for. And they have been doing their job just fine in Serie A and other competitions – just like they have begun to do so in the Champions League. So the only objective way to react to situations like this is to acknowledge the role the VAR played in ensuring the correct decision was made during the match.

Instead, in a ridiculous turn of events, most football commentators have come to characterize ANY decision made by the VAR as ‘controversial’! This is even more true when it comes to the VAR overturning a decision made by the on field referee. Until recently, the same commentators had been calling for the introduction of VAR to rectify the incorrect decisions made in the field. But when it is finally in play and starts overturning those very same incorrect decisions, it is suddenly deemed to be ‘controversial’! Are you serious?

In addition to just terming any VAR intervention as ‘controversial’, there are a bunch of other phrases that these commentators have an affinity to use:

  • City were “robbed by VAR”
  • “VAR denies” City a goal
  • “VAR raises its head” once again in this tie
  • “VAR drama once again”

Ok first of all, nobody ever gets ‘robbed’ by the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ assumes that you had actually scored a goal LEGITIMATELY to start with, and the VAR overturns it for no good reason. This has never happened in the short history of the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ can only refer to incidents like Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in the 2006 World Cup which he did score legitimately, but was not awarded by the referee. Or it can also refer to Tom Henning Overbo’s refereeing that night in Stamford Bridge in 2009 (Oh Lord please give me the strength to let go of this!). So if a team scores a goal, and the VAR later catches a foul or offside in its build up, it is no longer a legitimate goal to start with! So no, VAR does not ‘rob’ anyone of anything.

And no. VAR does not ‘deny’ anyone of a goal either. It is fair to make statements like “Hugo Lloris denies City a chance to go ahead with a remarkable save”, or even “the striker was denied a goal by the woodwork”. But making a statement like “VAR denies City a goal” is akin to accusing it of ‘robbing’ (see above). The only way to use ‘deny’ and ‘VAR’ in the same sentence is something like this: “VAR correctly denies Manchester City of a goal for an offside that was not spotted in the field.”

And what does it even mean to say “VAR raises its head again”? I have heard this multiple times on TV. The phrase ‘raises its head’ is generally used to show something under a negative light – which is why you typically hear people say “….raises its ugly head again”. Nobody ever says “…raises its beautiful head again”. Just because an on-field decision is overturned by the VAR doesn’t make it something that needs to be shown in a negative light. VAR is a process that allows the referee to utilize additional time and information to make a correct decision – even if that means overturning what was previously awarded.

And let us all just agree that there is no ‘drama’ with VAR. The only ‘drama’ lies is in people’s reactions to potentially overturning an incorrect decision. So it is not the VAR that is ‘causing’ the drama. If anything, it is the VAR that is being used to ‘resolve’ or even ‘prevent’ the drama arising out of an incorrect decision on the field.

But why is all this important you may ask? After all, it is just a game and commentators are supposed to give words to what is happening or has happened in their own words.

OK first of all, no competitive sporting event is ever just a game. Don’t even dare say that to a sports fan – regardless of sport. Secondly, the primary requirement of any commentator’s job is to be unbiased and objective. Everything else follows that. A part of that requirement is to not create a narrative that simply doesn’t exist. And that is where I am unhappy.

The problem with generating a narrative that terms VAR as something ‘controversial’ is that it ultimately leads to football fans questioning the very integrity of the decision making process in the game. This is highly ironic as the VAR was brought in becauseĀ the integrity of the decision making process was being questioned (due to a large number of high profile incorrect calls). Further, it can lead to a lot of resentment among the fans whose team were at the so called ‘receiving end’ of the VAR process. This resentment will typically not exist if the accepted narrative is that the VAR did what the on field referee should have initially done. But if the act of VAR overturning an on field call is termed ‘controversial’, this will always lead to resentment and a feeling of having been ‘robbed’ or ‘denied’ by some arcane process. And in the long run, that is unsustainable as a lot of people will eventually simply call for scrapping the VAR. And how unfortunate would that be!

That is not to say the VAR is perfect. I would love to see the referee make a live announcement to the entire stadium to explain the final decision after VAR review (NFL style). This can go a long way to let the fans all around the world know the thinking behind the decision. And that would also hopefully shut these commentators up as they can no longer simply speculate why the referee made that decision.

But till then, we have to acknowledge that the VAR is simply providing additional information and time to the on field referee to make the correct calls. Overturning an incorrect call does not make it controversial. In fact, the commentators who continue to call that process as controversial are the ones who are actually causing the controversy.

pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top

So here is my sincere request to all football commentators:

The VAR is a good thing that has happened to football and it is also long overdue. It does not become controversial just because it was used to overturn an on field decision, and it certainly does not rob anyone of anything. Your job is to stay objective and unbiased in how you report the football events, which means you need to understand and acknowledge what VAR is and what it is not. So, as the Wolf would say,

“Pretty please, with sugar on top, do your fucking jobs!”

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