We asked for this. We practically begged for it.
Soccer was getting too fast for the human eye to properly sort out what was happening, the consensus went. The referees needed help. And when goal-line technology was finally implemented, it made the sport better.
The arrival of the Video Assistant Referee — or VAR — to help adjudicate every other decision hasn’t made the game better. Because it has slowed it down with extended pauses to review footage. Now in use in the first major tournament, the ongoing Confederations Cup in Russia, the technology has revealed itself as unready to be integrated seamlessly into the game just yet.
On Sunday, in Chile’s 2-0 win over Cameroon, the game was twice interrupted for a significant spell while Chilean goals were being revisited through video footage. On the brink of halftime, a goal that probably should have stood was called off for offside. In injury time of the second half, a goal that should have been called for offside earlier in the play was allowed to stand.
In spite of VAR, both calls were wrong.
In the final moments of Mexico’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over New Zealand on Wednesday, a melee broke out. Referee Bakary Gassama initially wasn’t going to hand out any punishment at all, in spite of a series of shoves and headbutts, before consulting the VAR on two occasions. In the end, once he’d worked out who stood accused of what, he gave out some yellow cards. But that still didn’t seem to have meted out the necessary discipline and Gassama had held up the game for several minutes.
Just to get things a bit less wrong, the flow of the game, not to mention the final assaults by a pair of fiery teams looking for a much-needed result, was ruined.
Yet the mistakes are probably growing pains. The delays to the game, however, seem more intractable.
Certainly, given the ever-increasing stakes of the game, accuracy is important. If we can avoid mistakes, so much the better. Human error is as much a part of the charm of elite sports as transcendent athleticism. Or at the very least, it creates the plot points we wind up talking about the next morning. Still, the sport is fairer for avoiding blown calls where possible.
But if you accept that professional sport is just another branch of the entertainment industry — and if you don’t, ask yourself where the whole thing would be left if it didn’t entertain people and they stopped coming and watching — the product is the ebb and flow of the game itself. What makes soccer appealing is its unconstrained, free-flowing nature. The field is a blank canvas, whereupon different teams paint shapes reflecting their unique cultural blends. Where splendid players can do things you’ve not seen before. Just a few rules: no hands, no fouls, no offsides.
The product on the field is not accuracy. Or indeed fairness. The argument that elaborate goal celebrations or irksome time-wasting eat up just as much of the clock — which they don’t — discounts that those things are part of the theater and gamesmanship. Part of the entertainment.
Video replay feels intrusive even in stop-start sports like football, baseball, basketball and tennis. It slows things down when all of those sports could stand to get a bit quicker (which in the case of baseball feels like an existential imperative).
In soccer, it’s worse. Taking a few extra seconds following goal celebrations to review that a goal really was legitimate is perhaps tolerable. But when the entire game is paused for a minute or so, which feels eternal when it halts the rhythm of a momentum-sensitive sport, it seems like an eternity.
Making a jazzy sport choppy is grievous. What makes soccer better-equipped for 21st-century attention spans than most of its competitors is its continuous flow. You’re less inclined to look away because only once does the action stop for an extended period, at halftime. Mess with that formula and you might take a sledgehammer to the foundation of not only what makes soccer appealing, but also what makes it popular.
So what’s the solution? To roll back what should be a natural technological progression? One that we all felt was overdue?
Probably not. There’s a reason we all wanted this — yours truly included. The trouble is that it still takes human judgment and intuition to make a call, albeit from a room or truck decked out with a bunch of replay screens. Those places are likely a hive of debate, where several looks at the play in question are needed to make sense of it all. Speeding that process up will be tricky.
The holy grail is for those reviews to take place without stopping the game, whether it be by continuing play where possible only to make retroactive calls later — although that would likely only work with yellow and red cards — or perhaps by implementing a challenge system like in some other sports, giving each team a finite number of opportunities per game to have a play or call reviewed.
A solution to this problem has to be found. VAR is the right idea. But the present execution is wrong.
What makes soccer the beautiful game is its improvisation, as the game unfolds without script or constraint. Artificially slowing it down, even in the name of fairness, only diminishes it.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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