Before the pandemic hit, there was so much negativity around VAR. It was widely hated and chants of ‘f*ck VAR’ from fans was not uncommon as everyone stood around waiting for the wisdom of Solomon to enter the referee’s earpiece from Stockley Park, often for up to three minutes.
It was widely agreed that it made football worse and a majority of fans, as well as players and managers, wanted it dropped. Fans of teams below the top flight were all relieved the loathed system did not apply to the football they watched and it seemed only a matter of time before it took a long walk on a short plank.
Then the country shut down, we had the farce of fan-less football, played merely to keep the money from rights fees flowing into clubs in to keep paying the wages of players who, to be fair, did not seem any less happy to play this zombie version of the game. It was all passed off as being good for the nation’s morale, despite the fact that the majority of the nation have little or no interest in football, but in reality, it was only about money.
When football resumed with fans, it became clear to all of us just what we had been missing. It became clear that the fan-less version of the game was a pointless, bloodless thing and that fans make football worth playing, and without them it has no point. And it felt great. Great to hear the noise again, great to the point of spine-tingling.
Despite everything that is wrong with the game, especially in the top flight, the visceral joy of just seeing football played in front of supporters has been almost overwhelming. Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone and given we all had proper football taken from us, replaced by the zombie game, it is more than understandable that its return has made us all very happy indeed.
This positivity seems to have spread to VAR too. Complaints about it seem to have evaporated. We all just wait in silence to hear if it was a goal or not. Despite promises it wouldn’t be, VAR can be as fussy as ever, with toes and fingers being ruled offside, As anyone who watched Champions League football on Tuesday can attest, VAR still makes wildly inconsistent decisions, it overturns things that were not clear and obvious errors, it tells referees to look at a screen because the infringement is so borderline it is impossible for them to call, and yet it misses apparently obvious fouls too. Players are still wildly celebrating goals often for up to half a minute before they realise the dreaded VAR Check is happening. It remains the coitus interruptus to football’s most passionate moments. There was talk of it being used less, to make football more like it was before VAR, but if this ever happened it was only briefly. It is all over the game, all of the time.
And yet there are few, if any complaints about it now. It seems the absence of proper football for so long has made us just grateful for the game and we don’t have the bitterness or anger needed to drive protest against the game-changing introduction. We’re still just happy the thing is happening at all, so maybe it seems churlish to complain that the all-seeing eye is still making football worse. We have a different perspective now.
But things are settling down and returning to the norm. Fans have started booing their team off, no longer just grateful to be able to see them. Will this engender a return to booing every VAR interruption? Will it light up the phone-lines and the social media posts the way it was going a couple of years ago? Or has the pandemic-led firebreak taken all the heat out of the protests for good? Because, be in no doubt, if fans turn against it persistently and noisily, that is still the best chance of getting rid of it.
Maybe it is just another diminution of the game that we are coming to accept even though we don’t like it? But if you look at old footage of goals being scored, and strikers peeling away in near hysteria not fearful of it being ruled out by the Stockley Park sordid little grief hole, let’s remember, that was just better.