Sunday 15 September 2019

VAR raises the great philosophical questions of the age

  • Manchester City v Tottenham (Sky Sports)
Gabriel Jesus had a late effort against Tottenham ruled out (Martin Rickett/PA).
Gabriel Jesus had a late effort against Tottenham ruled out (Martin Rickett/PA).
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

They keep telling us that the higher realms of the intellect are not well served by a devotion to television, and yet the introduction of video assistant referee (VAR) into the football arena is daily presenting us with challenges that would require the input of the finest media minds of the age. But since Marshall McLuhan is no longer with us, I'll be taking it on myself, right here, right now.

One thinks of the Cockney taxi driver seeing the philosopher Bertrand Russell in the back of the cab, and saying: "Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about?"

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What is reality?

This is one of the relatively minor issues which are starting to arise now that big decisions are being made by a number of VAR officials watching the game on a bank of screens and relaying their findings to the earpiece of the referee.

Reality, as we used to know it, was whatever the referee was seeing, in that dimension which we used to know as "real life". But then television improved on that, so that the "reality" experienced by the referee is now regarded merely as a series of fleeting impressions.

The true version of what happened, be it a handball or an offside, is the one that is captured on the bank of screens and played back in slow motion again and again until a consensus is formed as to what decision to make.

Ah, but is something happening for real when it is happening in slow motion? There is a school of thought that even though the slow motion can "capture" the slightest hint of a handball, football is not actually played in slow-motion - there are cases where it might look like handball when the VAR examines it in microscopic detail, but no handball has taken place in any meaningful sporting sense.

I mean, there is no such thing in the actual world as slow motion. It is entirely an invention of the entertainment industry. And yet somehow it has come to be seen as an infallible record of human actions. Indeed, one of the arguments against VAR is the fact that you still have people arguing about the replays, about whether a foul has taken place or not, but that argument fails against the better argument that at least there is now more information at the disposal of VAR, than was the case with the old-style referee just using the evidence of his own eyes.

Indeed, much of the energy driving the introduction of VAR came from the realisation that, in most games, the viewer slumped on his couch was in a better position to call the big decisions than the referee and linesmen on the pitch - and since any game of any significance is now on television, you might have the World Cup final being decided by something that wasn't seen by the match officials but was seen clearly by several billion punters who weren't even there.

And here again our perceptions of reality are being overturned, because we are still reverting to the old definitions, whereby you are "there" if you are actually present in the stadium, and not "there" if you are, say, 5,000 miles away from it.

In truth there is no "stadium" any more. There is just the set of a television programme, the stage on which this entertainment is being produced for an audience watching it on screens - indeed the "crowd" is akin to the audience at The Late Late Show, it is part of the show, while the "real" audience is out there, beyond those studio walls.

We are questioning too, the claims of accuracy in VAR's superior version of reality, its assertion that at least the offside decisions are now totally accurate - but are they?

If we're talking millimetres here, is there not some tiny delay between the movement of the player on the pitch, and the recording of his movement by the camera? Is this too an artificial construction which is masquerading as the ultimate truth?

Ah, Lord Russell, what's it all about?

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