Quick quiz – who scored France’s regulation goal in the 2006 World Cup final? And who was the French guy who head-butted the Italian guy?
One was a correct soccer thing and the other was a flagrantly illegal one, but people recall only one of them. It’s as memorable as the moon landing.
If you think hard about the World Cup’s most standout events, there’s a lot of that.
Diego Maradona punching the ball toward goal; referee Byron Moreno going Three Mile Island in added extra time; Patrick Battiston getting his face stoved in by a flying, unpenalized hip check.
None of those things should have happened. Having happened, they should not have been gotten away with.
But they did and often were and thank God for that. Sport is at its best when things are going terribly wrong. It’s the disasters that pull people together in harmless rage.
Thanks to the introduction of video assistant referee ( VAR ), that’s over now. Welcome to the Brave New World Cup, where all thinking is right thinking.
We had heard a lot about VAR in the lead-up, but since few had gotten a look at how it operated in real life, a couple of things have taken us by surprise.
First, that the officials sitting in an air-conditioned video control room do so in their full, on-field uniform.
Second, that they actually intended to use the thing.
VAR first came to our attention during Saturday’s France-Australia game. Antoine Griezmann was brought down in the box. No foul was called. Play continued.
A few seconds later, after being alerted by Big Brother back in Moscow, the referee stopped play and went over to the sidelines to reconsider his choices. After staring at a monitor for a while, he called the penalty shot. Griezmann scored. That was the difference in France’s 2-1 win.
Theoretically, this is all better. Griezmann was fouled, though not obviously. Once you watched it in slow motion, you could see it was a penalty. Even the Australians couldn’t muster much outrage after the fact.
But all of this is contrary to the spirit of soccer, a game that does not stop for anything short of serious injury. That relentlessness is a big part of what separates soccer from every other sport on Earth, all of which are infected by long pauses.
Another keystone of soccer is that the referee is always right, even when he or she is wrong. The heart of the Laws of the Game is that the referee has “full authority.”
This dissonance is baked in because, while it is not always fair, it applies equally to either side. It adds an element of fallibility that gives the game its tension. It’s what makes an activity practised by superhumans relatable to the rest of us. Because screw-ups are part of life.
In some ways, mistakes are the foundation of the game – making them and taking advantage of them. If 22 people on the field are allowed that freedom, why should we expect a different standard from the 23rd?
VAR does that. With assistance from the eye in the sky, the referee is now omniscient.
If he muddles something, he gets a do-over. Eventually, the “referee” may as well be an intercom system yelling down calls from a loudspeaker.
You can already see the new system amplifying the game’s worst complaining instincts. After Switzerland scored on Sunday, Brazil’s players repeatedly – and ridiculously – pointed upward. They were hoping to be saved from above by instant replay.
In the early going, VAR has gotten an approving, if not quite enthusiastic, nod from most observers. Even its critics can’t verbalize why they dislike it.
After all, it is working. It is demonstrably fair.
The problem they can’t put their finger on is that fairness as an absolute has no place in our games. You can hope for it, but beware of what happens when you achieve it.
If you take all unfairness out of sport, what you have left is a skills showcase. There is a reason people don’t pay to watch Lionel Messi knocking balls into a net from the halfway line during practice.
There is no theatre in watching Messi being good at soccer. There is an enormous amount of it watching him do so while things have the potential of going sideways around him.
He made one impression in his first game in Russia – by fluffing a penalty. That miss has got the world talking. No one’s chattering about the game’s result, which was very fair.
By Sunday, media outlets had gone on a binge rewriting history with VAR time-warped back into the picture.
England might have won in ‘86 (but Maradona would not have become the world’s most beloved villain).
Italy might’ve won in ’02 (but the country would lose the one thing they can all agree on – that Moreno jobbed them).
Spain might’ve won in ’94 (but we’d have missed out on one of sport’s greatest bungles – Roberto Baggio’s moonshot penalty in the final).
The results might’ve been more correct in the strictest sense. But we’d all have been robbed of something more important – true drama, the sort that can only be produced when something goes awry.
This goes beyond score lines. Winning is wonderful, but the bitterness of having victory stolen from you is more compelling. That sense of thwartedness brings a community together in ways no trophy can.
There are only so many times you can dissect a great goal with any zeal (more than once makes you “that guy”). Twelve years later, I am still coming nearly to blows with people arguing that Zinedine Zidane was right to give Marco Materazzi the old Marseilles handshake. VAR wouldn’t have changed the result, but it would have made Zidane think twice about doing it.
France won on Saturday. That was right. Would it not be more interesting if they’d tied instead and were now in danger of the typical French reaction – turning on each other?
We used to say about these things, “Well, we’ll never know,“ and then spend a pleasurable hour at a bar or a kitchen table bickering gently about how it could have gone down.
Now we know, and have lost something fundamental in so doing.