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World Cup 2018: VAR marks the latest stage in football's evolution – and the game will be all the different for it

The Jonathan Liew Column: Football is embarking on a journey whose destination we can’t possibly know yet – but it's safe to say the game will adapt as it always has

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Friday 29 June 2018 12:32 BST
Marcus Rashford comments on use of VAR for England's win over Tunisia at World Cup

It seems hard to credit now, but when cricket introduced the Decision Review System almost a decade ago, the original belief was that batsmen would derive the greatest benefit. After all, batsmen had been finding themselves on the end of duff decisions since the dawn of cricketing time. LBW off a thick inside edge. Caught behind when it actually flicked your trousers. Sawn off because it was two minutes to lunch and the umpire was a bit peckish. Finally, with each team getting two chances to challenge an on-field decision and submit it for television review, they would have redress.

As the system was rolled out, it turned out that umpires had indeed been getting it wrong this whole time. But it wasn’t the batsmen getting a raw deal. Replays and Hawk-Eye analysis revealed an intrinsic and long-standing bias against spin bowlers, who were systematically being denied LBW decisions against batsmen playing on the front foot. A good proportion of these balls were actually hitting the stumps. Virtually overnight, one of the game’s established unwritten orthodoxies – that a batsman would not be given out if they took a big step forward – was turned on its head.

Almost immediately, the percentage of LBW dismissals began to rocket. Finger spinners like Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal prospered. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s around one in eight Test dismissals would be leg-before, in the current decade that has risen to over one in six. For the leading spinners of the decade – Ranganna Herath or Ravi Ashwin, say – around one in four. In recent years, conversely, it feels like batsmen are beginning to adapt, defending with the bat in front of the pad rather than beside it, using their feet more (stumping dismissals, too, are significantly up this decade), playing altogether more proactively. Few would dispute that the game is a richer, fairer, more rewarding spectacle as a result.

The point is that in sport, even fairly innocuous changes can have consequences far beyond their original intention. A simple tool to help umpires make more correct decisions ultimately renegotiated the fundamentals of the game. And it’s worth keeping this in mind as we navigate the stormy early days of the Video Assistant Referee, making its bow at the World Cup, and which for all the usual jerking of knees and clutching of pearls has the potential to reshape and transform football in all sorts of subtle ways we can’t yet grasp.

The initial disruption, of course, has been fairly predictable. At the end of the group stage, we have seen a staggering 24 penalties given in 48 games, hundreds of referrals, and the sort of late drama of which Fifa’s scriptwriters would surely have approved. On the fringes, meanwhile, there has been a lively and yet increasingly tedious debate about the “rights and wrongs” of VAR, as if it were a living being with a sentience and morality of its own, rather than simply a tape slowed down in a darkened room being watched by multilingual men in skintight jerseys.

The first point to note is that football is a sport where the smallest changes can often have a cataclysmic impact. The revision of the offside law in 1925 was followed by one of the highest-scoring seasons in First Division history. More recently, the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992 was greeted by carnage, confusion, and the sight of hapless goalkeepers fretting over simple back passes as if they were proximity mines. But the game coped. After a short period of chaos, it emerged chiselled and restitched, one step further along the evolutionary staircase. A similar process, you suspect, will occur here.

My tentative prediction is that VAR will quickly erode two of football’s tacit conventions: that non-violent infringements off the ball almost always go unpunished, and that the benefit of the doubt in penalty-box challenges generally goes to the defending team. Grappling in the penalty area will eventually ebb away; it will become harder to impede the run of an attacking player in the area; and so over time, the cross and especially the set piece – such a lucrative source of goals during this World Cup – will grow exponentially in importance. It may, indeed, become the key method of scoring, much as it is in field hockey.

Mass, hectoring appeal for VAR appears to be in the ascendant, as this World Cup has shown (AFP/Getty Images)

But of course, it won’t stop there. With the corner becoming such a potent weapon, attacking teams may start actively trying to win them. The traditional winger could make a resurgence. Defending teams, now hyper-wary of giving away corners or close-range free-kicks, may in turn seek to defend deeper and in greater numbers, favouring the block and the interception over the tackle and 50-50 challenge. Long-ball football could come back into fashion, as teams seek to induce panic in the area and perhaps win a cheap penalty. In the medium term, however, expect defenders to adapt and thrive, developing new and more sophisticated ways of deterring danger without necessarily winning the ball outright.

Meanwhile, it’s possible to see more handballs being given, as the traditional benefit of the doubt enjoyed by defenders gives way to the gradual realisation that virtually no defensive stance in the history of the game could ever be described as a “natural position”. And indeed, replaying any incident in slow motion strips it of context, magnifies every split second, marries the granular cross-examination of detail with the heft of real-time motion. Slowed down by a factor of 12, even the most simple of shoulder barges begins to look like a violent assault.

What about ethics? It was originally thought that VAR might help eradicate diving; the evidence so far, in all but the most obvious cases, suggests the opposite. Given that the rules do not distinguish between degrees of contact, players now have an incentive to exaggerate any contact as much as possible. The mass, hectoring appeal also appears to be in the ascendant, with players surrounding the referee after every contentious incident making those cute little box gestures, and will continue unchecked until the introduction of the sort of team-based referral system seen in cricket or American football.

Is VAR good or bad for the game? In many ways, it’s a moot point (Getty)

Of course, none of this might come to pass. Or all of it. Or some of it. The point is that football is embarking on a journey whose destination we can’t possibly know yet. In basketball, the introduction of the three-second defensive violation rule in 2001-02 ended up having a profound impact on the centre position, hastening the decline of the traditional 7ft ‘big man’. In Formula One or rugby union, meanwhile, incessant rule tweaks – each often a direct reaction to the last – have become an ingrained part of the sport’s culture, a kitsch annual ritual, like the Hollywood actor who has had so many facelifts that nobody can remember what they originally looked like.

Is VAR good or bad for the game? In many ways, it’s a moot point. The lesson of all sport – of the world, really – is that the thread of technological progress only ever unravels in one direction. And if all this seems bewildering, discomforting, even a little sinister, then relax: as the game adapts, so do we, effortlessly, instinctively. Today’s tumult will become tomorrow’s second nature. Today’s lava flow is tomorrow’s rich soil. And for all the short-term drama and disgruntlement in the short term, one day we may realise that technology has given us the greatest of gifts: a chance to see football not the way we have been conditioned to see it, but the way it really is.

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