The case for dodgy refereeing decisions

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As some of you may know, yesterday my beloved Liverpool FC (LFC) played a game of football against Manchester City FC (MCFC). LFC won.

This is not a match report (if you want to know more about the game, google it), but there was an incident in the game that got me thinking: A perfectly legitimate goal was controversially ruled out for MCFC just before the stroke of half-time by referee Mr Lahoz. It would have put MCFC 2-0 up on the day and perhaps changed the momentum of the game. Pep Guardiola, the very handsome, very bald and cult-leaderish MCFC manager, was incensed to the point of being sent to the stands. And after the game, Bernardo Silva, a MCFC player, has called for UEFA to introduce Video Assistant Referees (VAR) for games.

Football has become one of the most important forms of entertainment in the world and is by far and away the most popular sporting entertainment. There are many reasons for this, but an important one is that football has an element of unpredictability that means, before every game, David’s fans feel a tiny tickle of hope in their hearts that they may topple Goliath, no matter the mismatch. This unpredictability comes from the fact that there are very few scoring events – an average game sees around 2.6 goals scored. This season a Premier League team has an average of around 12 or 13 shots on goal (MCFC have around 18), so very few of the goalscoring opportunities are actually converted into goals. Each shot is a discrete event that either ripples the net or skews badly wide and the odds are that it will be the latter. This means that in any given game there is a chance that Goliath, who will have the majority of shots, may miss them all and David will put one of his many fewer chances in the back of the net and then run around with his pants on his head in dizzy celebration at the end of the game.

In addition to this, it is a human, namely the referee, who determines how the rules of the game are followed. By nature of being human, referees make many, many, many mistakes much like the one made by Mr Lahoz last night. This adds another opportunity for David to beat the odds.

As football’s appeal has spread across the globe and as money has flooded into the game football, much like our modern economy, has seen an explosion in inequality. There is a handful of super-rich, elite football clubs in a handful of traditional football nations that dominate economically and on the field. In football, it is perhaps even more pronounced than in the economy in general as there seems to be some acceptance that good players naturally gravitate towards the richer, and therefore more successful, teams. Any player with even a modicum of ability gets ripped from David by Goliath, simultaneously weakening David and strengthening Goliath. This makes Goliath better on the field, which attracts more sponsors and means that Goliath is a more attractive destination for players at other Davids as well. This virtuous (vicious) circle goes on and on, and it typically only broken by oil/oligarch funding. This means that Goliath is much more likely to have more shots on goal than David, the shots on goal are likely to be of better quality and so everyday David becomes less and likely to upset the odds.

Football, unlike the economy as a whole, is now most definitely entertainment*. It exists at the scale it does only because of the searing highs and tear-jerking lows it can bring. This intense concentration of wealth and talent in a few Goliaths puts the sport at increasing risk of boringness. If it does become boring, the vast interest in the game, and the money that follows, may be at risk of stagnation or decline. You might not care about the money (and I certainly do not) but MCFC’s bosses (along with the bosses of every over-leveraged football club across the land with financial plans that assume year on year revenue growth) likely would. You do, however, care if your team never beat a Goliath again – you’d stop watching if you knew there was no chance at all of it happening.

What does all this have to do with Bernardo Silva and VAR?

What Mr Silva was asking for is allowing contentious decisions to be reviewed by looking at video replay footage. In principle, his thinking makes sense – the laws of the game would be followed more accurately which seems like it should make for a better game. Indeed, before thinking about it today I would have been a mild advocate for VAR.

On reflection, I think he is wrong. VAR will be bad for the game (and especially for football bosses).

There are the obvious arguments against VAR which seem to centre around ruining the flow of the game and destroying the atmosphere in stadiums. I don’t disagree with these at all.

I think, however, there is a more fundamental reason that Mr Silva is wrong. All VAR would do is take a layer of unpredictability out of the game. The human error that human referees bring is part of David’s hope and this would be crushed. Goliaths would win more frequently and football, being entertainment, would be far worse for it.

The beautiful game and its inequality are already teetering on the edge of boringness and VAR could just about push it over the edge. To that, I say long live different, special Mr Lohar and his erroneous peers.

* I can feel your eyes rolling

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2 Replies to “The case for dodgy refereeing decisions”

  1. I think you touch on an interesting point – whether football is about winning or entertainment. Ultimately it is a trigger for an emotional release of some sort, the question is does the relentless pursuit of success bring joy to its fans, or classy entertaining football? Varying managers and their teams have tried either/both approaches and I think a straw poll would probably tip towards success (perhaps driven by the current zeitgeist of success at any cost within the game).
    Purists would agree with you in eliminating VAR. I also agree too
    However those chasing trophies are likely to want to eliminate any element of chance, esp if supporting a top club.

    I’m sure the debate will rage on for a while!

    1. The debate that you are talking about is one that haunts football – and basically, I think the teams that win less want some entertainment 🙂

      I think actually the VAR thing is about winning – the better a club you are, the more you want VAR, as it takes unpredictability out of the game which favours better teams. For each club, the decision on whether they want VAR is different to the league as a whole… it’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma.

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