The fundamental problem with replay review is that it rarely works as intended. In theory, the referee blows an obvious and important call—the guard’s foot was well behind the three-point line, the tight end definitely trapped the ball against the turf, the striker was a full yard offside—and the review swiftly corrects it. The team that benefits feels vindicated, and the team that doesn’t is a little miffed, but basically everybody agrees that a wrong has been righted and the contest is a little more fair than it otherwise would have been. In practice, you know how city busses are supposed to show up every ten minutes or so but sometimes you’re sitting on a corner for half an hour in the rain wondering if modern civilization has ended and you just don’t know about it yet? It is sometimes like that. An wrong is quickly righted, or we’re stuck staring ref butts for interminable stretches of time as they examine video blown up so big the pixels are the size of Kraft singles, trying to figure out if a ball grazed a single frayed fiber of a punt returner’s gloves. This is not any fun, and it’s not really even sports. It’s amateur forensics, and were it to be excised from the game in exchange for a few more officiating mistakes, that would be fine with me.
Of course, that’s not going to happen. Once replay review is established in a sport, its application only ever broadens, because if we can look at this, why can’t we look at that? In the wake of an egregious pass interference no-call in the NFC Championship Game, the folks who run the NFL are at least going to have an offseason discussion about whether P.I. should become reviewable, and they’ll have a hard time coming up with an argument against doing so, because they’ve already established that they’re willing to halt the action to examine so many other types of plays. The only way to shut down calls for expanded replay review is to simply not have it in the first place.
As American sports have become increasingly bogged down by prolonged bouts of standing around and squinting, the various bureaucracies that govern professional soccer, astoundingly behind the times as they are, have been (accidentally) doing right by the game that pays their overgrown salaries in neglecting to institute any kind of replay review—until recently, that is. As we saw at the World Cup last summer, VAR—video-assisted refereeing—is quickly becoming standard in high-level soccer. The Bundesliga and Serie A installed it in 2017. La Liga’s using it this season. It’s coming to the Champions League knockout rounds and to the EPL at the beginning of next year. Before this recent innovation, most leagues in Europe had used goal-line technology, which was developed by Hawkeye, the company that invented tennis’s near-perfect replay review mechanism. Goal-line technology is terrific because it’s just a series of cameras and some software that pings that referees watch when the butt-end of the ball passes into the net. It’s an ideal, instantaneous form of review. VAR, by contrast, is more or less what you’re familiar with if you’ve ever come back from a bathroom break to discover that the refs in this Spurs-Hornets game are still flummoxed as to whose elbow the ball hit before it went out of bounds.
In short, VAR is bad in all the usual ways. It corrects some missed calls, but it also turns every other goal and penalty area tackle into a court case. I can tell you, as a weekly La Liga watcher, that it has made Spanish soccer particularly unpleasant to watch. You see, La Liga already has pretty poor refereeing as compared to the EPL and Bundesliga, and due to both this incompetence and the nation’s robust cultural tolerance for bickering, players in Spain are predisposed to argue every little thing. No yellow card has ever been justified, no borderline handball decision ever left undebated. This is exhausting, and with VAR, the on-pitch litigating has only intensified, because the players don’t know (or don’t care) what’s supposed to be reviewable and not, and they demand the referee take a look at plenty of stuff that isn’t particularly important or calls that were clearly fine in the first place. For every instance when a goal is ruled valid after a poor offside decision, there are several spells of players surrounding the ref as he tries to tell them that no, no, leave me alone, get away from me, we’re not reviewing it. This slows matches down, but it also just creates a miserable overall vibe. VAR creates incentive for players to give in to their worst impulses. Instead of airing their considerable talents, they essentially become some end-of-his-rope schmuck stuck in traffic, honking his horn and fogging up his windows with curses.
Real Madrid boss Florentino Perez is trying to kill VAR before it entrenches itself, and while that crusade is more about Flo’s ego than anything else, he’s at least on the right side of the argument. But it’s one he’s not going to win, because even his massive reservoir of juice isn’t enough to get rid of a system that, for whatever reason, sports leagues become absurdly attached to once they institute it. Whether replay review is a net-positive or not, it endures. Ironically, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any process that can expunge it.