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Too Close to Call

VAR and soccer’s big data problem

In the last round of Premier League games of 2019, Sheffield United—a newly promoted team, now owned by a Saudi royal, from a struggling steel town whose players have acquired a reputation as “giant killers”—was visiting last year’s champions Manchester City. Owned by an Emirati royal, Manchester City is from the textile and port city where Engels wrote his Condition of the Working Class in England. Around thirty minutes into the match, the score still 0-0, Sheffield United broke into a counter-attack: Scottish midfielder John Fleck sliced open Manchester City’s defense with a pass that made good on his team’s colloquial name, “The Blades” (a reference to Sheffield’s industrial history as a steel town), cutting out four of the most expensive players in the world and setting French attacker Lys Mousset through on goal, where he put the ball past Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo. The finish was brilliant, but it’s the setup that was genius: a perfectly timed left-footed pass that curved from one side of the field to the other, just beyond the helpless defenders, gratefully received by Mousset and dutifully placed into the back of the net. The traveling Sheffield United supporters erupted with joy while the home fans grimaced.

But then, an interruption. Hundreds of miles away, match officials were reviewing whether Mousset had been offside when Fleck played his pass. The Premier League has introduced a new technology this season, and with it new officiating processes: each one of four “match-changing situations” are now subject to review by Video Assistant Referees, or VAR, who are looking for “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents.” (Those four situations are goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards, and cases of mistaken identity—that is, when the on-field referee penalizes the wrong player.) “There will be a high bar for VAR intervention on subjective decisions to maintain the pace and intensity of Premier League matches,” the League assured fans before the beginning of the season. “Factual decisions such as whether a player is onside or offside, or inside or outside the penalty area, will not be subject to the clear and obvious test.” In such situations, the League announced, if the Video Assistant Referee believes an error has been made, they will intervene “regardless of how marginal the decision is.”

The presence of high-definition cameras all over even the oldest stadia in the Premier League, necessary for games to be broadcast around the world, means that everything that happens on the pitch is captured from multiple angles. “Immediately people can see things on TV, on their phones, and know mistakes have been made,” Mike Riley, managing director of Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the governing body for Premier League match officials, has said. “So if you have that power of technology, why not harness it to help what is happening on the pitch?” A reasonable enough proposition: after all, fetishizing “the power of technology” has never led us astray before! Thanks to this all-seeing eye, Mousset’s goal and Fleck’s assist, were disallowed—one of five goals in ten matches that were overturned that weekend, and the fifth goal that Sheffield United has seen reversed due to VAR this season. Manchester City went on to win the match 2-0, scoring their second goal after the on-field referee got in the way of a Sheffield defender.

The path to this moment began in a tavern in London in 1863, when about a dozen English clubs signed onto a gentlemen’s agreement, consenting to a bare-bones set of rules that were drawn from ones first established at the University of Cambridge in 1848 as bourgeois revolutions kicked off in France, the German states, the Austrian empire, and elsewhere. (There was much debate over whether players should be allowed to kick the man with the ball in the shins; ultimately, it was agreed that they would not.) The 1863 agreement introduced a version of the offside rule—a source of controversy from its inception—which today states that when in the opponents’ half of the pitch, any part of a player’s head, body, or feet cannot be nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-to-last opponent at the moment the ball is played by a teammate. In other words, if you are an attacker, you can’t sneak in behind the last defender before a teammate passes the ball to you.

In 1863, though, there were no positions as such. Division of labor was introduced to the pitch in Scotland, land of Adam Smith and David Hume, in the early 1870s—around the same time that the referee appeared, at first on the sideline, and then in 1891, stepping onto the field. “In Spanish he is the árbitro and he is arbitrary by definition,” Eduardo Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. “An abominable tyrant who runs his dictatorship without opposition, a pompous executioner who exercises his absolute power with an operatic flourish. Whistle between his lips, he blows the winds of inexorable fate to allow a goal or to disallow one. Card in hand, he raises the colors of doom: yellow to punish the sinner and oblige him to repent, and red to force him into exile.”

Then as now, the job of the referee was to be hated: by fans, by players, by coaches. In every match, each of these groups will see how much mischief they can get away with, pushing, testing, finding the edge, and sometimes tripping over it. But for decades, the referee was the highest authority in the game. His—and, until very recently, the referee was always a man—was the Word of (football) God. For ninety minutes, he was untouchable: an unknowable sovereign, questioned at your peril. Umpires, later known as linesmen and now as assistant referees, helped rule on offside calls, determined who had touched the ball last when it went out of play, and monitored substitutes and coaching staff. Together, they and the referee formed a kind of committee to manage the conflicting interests of the opposing teams, under the Laws of the Game.

Then as now, the job of the referee was to be hated: by fans, by players, by coaches.

I learned about the Laws, and soccer generally, from my grandfather, an immigrant from Dublin and a Manchester United supporter who had worked part-time as a semi-professional referee in his earlier years. Sitting on the couch together, we’d watch what little Premier League football was televised in the United States when I was a kid, and I’d listen as he offered his commentary, which was as much about the referee’s decision-making as the players’. It doesn’t get top billing in the Football Association’s handbook, but for my grandfather, the most important rule of the game was that players, coaches, and referees should not act in any way that “brings the game into disrepute.”

And yet some players, urged on by fans, will do whatever it might take to win. He’s a bastard, supporters might say of a particularly dirty player, but he’s our bastard. So fans need referees, turning to the sport as we do not only for ecstasy but also balance, fairness, justice. Formal equality before the Laws of the Game, however, does not necessarily translate into justice. Is it justice for a successful counter-attack, sprung by a perfect pass, to be invalidated on the basis of a hair’s-breadth infraction imperceptible to the human eye? We are told this is a matter of objectivity, but that’s not actually true: the margin of error—created by the movement of defenders in one direction and the attacker in another, the ambiguity of when the ball leaves the passer’s foot, and more existential questions like where a player’s arm, with which he is not permitted to play the ball, ends, and his armpit, with which he is, begins—is apparently large enough that yet another assistant referee, hidden away from the fans and the players and the coaches (but visible to the TV audience at home, with whom the VAR’s onscreen fiddling is shared), can intervene and make a new determination.

Video Assistant Referees were presented as the answer to a crisis that may or may not have actually existed: the crisis of missed calls. According to Professional Game Match Officials Limited, before VAR’s introduction, Premier League referees were making, on average, one decision every twenty-two seconds, or 245 decisions over the course of a match; on average, Sky Sports found, about five of those decisions were incorrect. Of course, the professional association that administers referees can hardly be relied upon to admit that its members have been struck with an epidemic of failure, and this was very much not a scientific study. But it’s still a useful metric: the professionals wanted the public to believe that they were getting things right pretty much every time. This number—most people would probably be fairly pleased to be correct 97.9 times out of 100—wasn’t good enough, inflated or otherwise.

There is plenty of real injustice in football: consider the gulf in resources between men’s and women’s teams, the enduring presence of racism in the stands, the ineffectiveness of financial regulations in the sport, and the corruption of the game’s ruling bodies. The crisis in refereeing, journalist Daniel Storey suggests, is not some epidemic of missed calls but how difficult it is to make a living as a professional referee—especially given how much money is now flowing through the sport. For Storey, the more important story is how referees are treated: harangued, harassed, hated, and paid poorly for the privilege. As Galeano reminds us, this is nothing new: “Scapegoat for every error, cause of every misfortune, the fans would have to invent him if he did not already exist. The more they hate him, the more they need him.” What is new is all the money. When billions of dollars are at stake, being right 97.9 percent of the time simply won’t cut it.

Today, a team like Manchester City isn’t just a football club; it’s also a global sports entertainment media company, one of the largest in a consortium, and global sports entertainment media companies need content. For supporters in the stadium, the content is the action on the field: ordered chaos that coalesces into ecstatic beauty. Take Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s elegant bicycle kick to equalize for Brighton & Hove Albion against Chelsea on New Year’s Day, a feat of spectacular athleticism made all the more cathartic by the context in which it occurred. Hovering above the relegation zone, Brighton, known as “The Seagulls,” was playing London’s mighty Chelsea, against whom they’d lost for eleven matches running; Jahanbakhsh is a talented attacking player from Iran who has struggled at Brighton since signing for a club record fee in 2018, reportedly around £17 million. (Chelsea’s club record fee, on the other hand, was £71.5 million, for Spanish goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga in 2018.)

Today, a team like Manchester City isn’t just a football club; it’s also a global sports entertainment media company.

In another era, Jahanbakhsh’s goal would have lived on only in the memories of those who witnessed it; today, it’s immediately the subject of slow-motion replays, eventually transforming into shareable GIFs and possibly memes. This is just one consequence of the transformation of soccer into a global commodity, which would not have been possible without television and the technological innovations that have accompanied it. In 2007, the Premier League reportedly invested seed money in a growing sports technology company called Hawk-Eye Innovations, which would be acquired by the Japanese multinational Sony Corporation in 2011 as part of its push into live sports entertainment. According to one analysis, Hawk-Eye Innovation’s net worth in 2010 was $1.4 million; today, its net worth is an estimated $27.8 million—growth that has been stimulated in no small part by its incorporation into the Premier League, first as provider of goal-line technology and now as the technology behind VAR (they also run the League’s digital strategy). It’s not so much that VAR is a money-making initiative for the Premier League, but that the Premier League presents money-making opportunities for behemoths like Sony, Comcast, and Amazon. VAR is both a product and an accelerant.

After a number of controversial offside decisions at the beginning of the current Premier League season, it was reported that Hawk-Eye would develop an enhanced system including “limb-tracking technology,” marketed as a way to reduce delays in the stadium while remote officials review video. As the Daily Mail breathlessly pointed out, this will have the added benefit of generating more data for clubs to monitor their most valuable assets: “The new system will offer a full skeletal model of every player’s movements, giving a much greater insight to facilitate studies into gait analysis and biomechanics.” Having introduced the technology, it must be used. The solution to any failure or breakdown is ever more technology: more cameras, more automation, more data.

When VAR began working its way into soccer, I was ambivalent: cynically, I wondered whether broadcasters would use the breaks in play necessitated by video review to run more advertisements; optimistically, I hoped that the “clear and obvious errors” that every fan is sure have impeded their team’s chances at glory would be eradicated. Last season, the team I support, Tottenham Hotspur, even benefited from a VAR decision in the Champions League, advancing to the semi-finals after a stoppage time Manchester City equalizer in the quarter-finals was overruled due to a marginal offside call. Tottenham supporters celebrated the reversal with as much joy as City supporters had celebrated the goal; this, I thought, was balance. But months later, my initial reaction to Jahanbakhsh’s scissor-kick goal was not delight but a deep anxiety that it would be disallowed on account of some minor infraction earlier in the play.

Now I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a pre-VAR world, even in the knowledge that the logic that created VAR, with all its faults, is the same logic that allowed me to watch Brighton play Chelsea in an East Sussex resort town from my couch in Queens in the first place. Still, give me cheating, give me diving, give me referees balancing their decisions over the course of a match, distributing fairness according to their sense of what is happening on the pitch. Had it been in place at the time, it’s likely VAR would have overturned some of the greatest moments in football history—Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup; Thierry Henry’s reprise in the World Cup qualifiers against Ireland in 2009—both of which are now so legendary precisely because they were, technically, moments in which great players cheated.

Having introduced the technology, it must be used. The solution to any failure or breakdown is ever more technology: more cameras, more automation, more data.

The game we are approaching today is bloodless and boring. “Decisions are being taken by referees miles and miles away,” Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espírito Santos said after his club’s recent match against Liverpool, in which a Wolves equalizer was disallowed after VAR ruled the goal offside. “A referee in that situation doesn’t feel the game like someone present at the match.” As Liverpool midfielder James Milner put it: “Football is a game of human error on the field and in officiating as well. They have a very tough job and I’m all for making their lives easier—but not at the expense of the flow of the game.” There is something particularly jarring about a goal being overturned thanks to a player’s heel or nose or armpit having been a centimeter over an invisible line that can only be measured and drawn with the help of high-powered computers. To call that offside may be in accordance with one rule, but to me it seems to violate a more elemental one: it brings the game into disrepute.

Focusing on individual calls obscures the creeping banality of what is really happening: the displacement of subjectivity away from the field, turning toward the appearance of objectivity made possible by the cameras capturing every possible angle of the play. VAR is a disavowal of responsibility, an admission of our inability to live with mistakes and the instability of human decision-making, to judge for ourselves and each other what is right and wrong without appealing to some external, purportedly objective authority. This is how neoliberalism makes its way onto the football pitch: global capital, having absorbed its institutions, now promises to re-enchant them with miraculous machines, men and women hidden away within them.