Having lived in the anonymity for New York for some years, the poet WH Auden commented laconically that living in the Big Apple was like being married to a beautiful woman, a rich woman, and an extraordinarily intelligent woman, but one who is 25 years older. Such a surfeit of everything and one is left wondering how could any person cope with all this abundance.
The beginning of the new decade, for a football fan, has been so packed with football with English Premier League matches spilling over into the New Year and the FA cup in the final stages all bunched together. Top teams were playing four matches a week and one can imagine the pressure on the referees, let alone the players who had to be at the peak of form. Watching four tops teams on an evening was even more taxing and it took a whole day to recover from that effort. And there were the German, Italian and Spanish leagues as also the European Championship and the Europa cups all bunched together.
It was difficult to keep track of the players, and your favourites and the coaches and watching their tensions was even more heartbreaking, especially for those from the more emotional Mediterranean region. The theatrical performance on the technical area was even more wrenching.
Adding to the complexities of the otherwise uncomplicated, subaltern game mainly played by teams like the Scottish Highlanders and those from the industrial towns like Manchester and Sheffield with the most elementary rules and supervised by avuncular referees who made the linesmen do the running, the game had been transmogrified into a highly technical operation that it has started to be baffling even to the most erudite fan. It has become something like watching an intricate surgery being performed by teams of experts with charts and power points and inputs coming from across continents.
In a match between England and Norway in the nineties in the first minute itself a penalty was awarded against England for a foul committed on Torre Andre Flo which was widely criticised as the replays from all the 10 different angles showed that there had been no contact and that the player was faking it. The golden haired player was reviled and called ‘flying Flo’ and ‘diving Flo’. On the third day, however, from the video taken from the stands came the clinching evidence of the player being tripped. But it took a long time for that decision to be accepted in England. Flo incidentally came to play in the English league and came to be associated with a ‘long cross-field pass’ for a wide target man that became a fashion for some time.
If the dedicated fan can be confused about the players and the coaches and unable to keep track of their whereabouts, is it any wonder that the referees are as confused and need some assistance. And the latest to come to their aid is the Video Assisted referee (VAR) which sounds ominously like the favourite abbreviations of our economists like VAT, PPP and CSR and, the latest entrant, RCT.
For a loyal fan who identifies himself with his favourite team and the players and vests, and even the coaches these have been trying times. You do not know if your favourite player is with the team you have been pitching for. If you identify Klopp with Dortmund and Guardiola with Bayern Munich and find that they have switched not clubs alone but even countries and now are rivals and bring their theatrical shows to the technical areas of Manchester City and Liverpool, you are so thoroughly confused.
Closely following them were flamboyant coaches like Mourinho and Ancellotti who had been adversaries in the Italian league till the other day. They had stepped into the shoes of firmly entrenched coaches like Mauricio Pochettino and Pellegrini. For a sociologist it would be interesting to note the nationality of these coaches plonked in the transit lounge. There was a time when the Dutch were dominant, with Lous van Gaal and Advocat and Koemann being at the helm of major English teams. Then came the Italians like Mancini and Conte. There were the French who brought in their flair and transformed the game, coaches like Arsene Wenger whose two-decade innings at Arsenal changed the style of the game itself. And Gerard Houllier, and that fiery player Eric Cantona.
Now there is a new generation of managers who seem to have taken over, like Arteta and Lampard and Solskjaer and even Gerard coaching a fourth division team. And even the England coach now is Southgate, who have all been till recently playing for English clubs. And the long time coach of the national team Eriksson has gone on some assignment in the Middle-east, and you spot some of the old coaches like Ken Dalglish and Ferguson watching the game passively from the box circle.
Like the coaches the VAR also seemed to have been the gift of the Dutch who had introduced their unique brand of ‘total football’. The first video referral came in the match between the Iberian neighbours, Portugal and Spain when the combative Diego Costa clashed with Portuguese defender Pepe, no innocent himself. As Spain celebrated the goal Costa scored from his reclining position, the referee consulted the video assistant referee using his headset, asking if he had seen anything wrong in the play. At that time the VAR was situated in a video operations room in Moscow, 1629 km away from the scene of action. The goal was allowed to stand. Diego Costa commented, ‘I don’t like it (VAR).. I scored a goal but I didn’t know whether to celebrate or not. If there is a questionable part, you don’t celebrate, it can make you look stupid.’
With combative Mourinho there can never be a dull moment. He fumed when the VAR disallowed a penalty in a year-end game. ‘For me referees are not the referees. I think the VAR should change their name because Video Assistant Referee is not true. It should be VR, Video Referee, because they are the referee.’ In his staccato English, the irony could not be lost even in translation.
He continued, ‘You see the refs on the pitch and they are not refs, they are the assistants. The other guy in the office is the one who make the big decisions.’
Mourinho said the fact that the VAR interfered in a second decision which was not a penalty was meant to take the focus away from the first decision which should have been analysed instead. ‘The direction it is taking us in is really, really wrong.’
The secretary of the International Football Association (IFAB) Lukas Brud who was instrumental in introducing VAR sad it was ‘to protect referees from making mistakes that everyone can see immediately.’ It was introduced by FIFA in 2012 and ‘thanks to that, at the World Cup matches referees are now instantly alerted when the ball completely crosses the line, via a technology developed by a British tech company Hawk-Eye.’ Soccer has always been conservative, Brud concedes, but ‘we knew we are opening a very wide door and that if we stared down this path, there would be no way back.’
And there does not seem to have been any way back. There would be interruptions, close calls with the referee goose stepping to the referral pulpit and signalling if it was a goal, or a penalty. There is no scope for him to overrule the sophisticated instrument that might be situated elsewhere, possibly in Russia itself.
With so much of Continental talent on display at the English Premier League, and the players’ nationality displayed while announcing the list at the beginning of the match and of the coaches and even the referees where does Boris Johnson stand as regards the Brexit, on whose plank he had won the elections. Does the pullout from the European Union also include all these Continental talent in action on the British playing fields?
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.