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VAR is making the World Cup a literal game of inches

Sorry, goalkeepers.

It can feel a bit shabby, thinking about VAR when there’s so much more to be thinking about. Argentina, rallying from three goals to win only their second World Cup point ever. Scotland, putting together one of the great collapses. Group D swinging one way, then the other, as first—

Wait, what’s that? Oh, the referee’s got her hand to her ear. And yes, she’s going over to the television screen … and, yes. There it is. It’s time to think about VAR again.

On the off-chance you missed it, here’s what happened. Scotland, having romped out to a three-goal lead, folded in on themselves like wet origami. Argentina came back to 3-2, then Scotland conceded a penalty (confirmed by VAR, of course, but probably fair enough). And then Lee Alexander saved it! Pandemonium! Joy! Despair! Wait, what’s that? The referee’s got her hand, etc., and so on.

Turns out Alexander had moved an inch from her line. Booking. Retake. Goal. Argentina are still alive, just about, depending on results elsewhere; Scotland are out. It would take a heart of purest granite not to feel delighted at the continuation of Argentina’s grand adventure, coming as it does despite their own national football association. But also, more VAR.

Of the many odd and strange things about football’s chaotic charge into the world of video refereeing, this sense of interruption might be the most immediately annoying. Come on, referees. We’re trying to have a moment here. Moments are fun.

But beyond that, there is something particularly enervating about the enforcement of VAR in these particular circumstances. Goalkeepers advancing off their line was, in the great list of Problems With Football, somewhere below “All kits look the same these days” and “They don’t make corner flags the way they used to”.

And as problems go, it only exists in extremis. It might well matter if the goalkeeper is a couple of feet off their line at the moment a penalty kick it taken. But it doesn’t matter the slightest if they’ve stolen an inch. The important thing isn’t whether the goalkeeper is touching the line; it’s whether they are gaining an advantage by leaving the line. One is a question of absolutes, the other is not. And VAR cares, by design, about the wrong one.

There are some questions that are actually better answered by the human eye, as modified by the human brain, than by the strict liability of a yes/no question as revealed by replay. A referee can, when assessing encroachment, ask themselves important questions. Questions like “Was that a foot or an inch?” and “Did that look important or relevant?” and “What, really, am I trying to punish here?”. And then they can weigh their response accordingly.

Turn to the television, however, and we discover that that encroachment is a binary state of on or off, that an inch is the same as a foot, and that a keeper moving from their line should be assessed in the same fashion as a ball crossing the line. Which is all a bit weird.

Anyway, the argument rumbles on. The Premier League, which is introducing VAR next season, has announced that the system won’t be ruling on issues of goalkeeping encroachment. We can only assume that they looked into the future, and they saw the episodes of ArsenalTV, and they recoiled in terror.

But the World Cup is stuck with it. VAR gives us more penalties, and then VAR nails the keeper’s feet to the line and tells them not to even think about moving. It’s going to happen again, and if it doesn’t — if keepers are cowed into caution — then it will be happening anyway, just inside the heads of goalkeepers.

It’s a crude test, but: if the interested neutral comes out the other end of a crucial World Cup game that was 3-0 at 74 minutes and 3-3 by the final whistle, and that neutral is not exhilarated or giddy or running round their house with their trousers on their head, but instead annoyed and resentful and frankly just tired of the grinding march of weaponized pedantry, then congratulations! You’ve broken the World Cup, just a little bit. Nice one.

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