Where once football looked at the prospect of Video Assistant Referees with wide eyes of hope, the recent FA Cup replay between Tottenham and Rochdale was perhaps the nadir of the system.
The oft-cited drawback of a complete absence of communication to in-stadium fans was there, of course, but so was something that had been feared since VAR started to be introduced – ruling on subjective decisions.
When Erik Lamela’s goal was disallowed because of a ‘foul’ that was supposedly committed by Fernando Llorente, many observers were left scratching their heads as to what the alleged infringement was.
How, it might be asked, can VAR be expected to determine with any sort of certainty what is or isn’t a foul?
In fact, lurking beneath the surface of the debates about VAR is a more fundamental question about the legal structures which underpin the beautiful game.
Lord Justice Mike Dean
Football could learn a thing from the history of legal theory. If that isn’t a line that gets you in the mood, give me three paragraphs before you decide to stop reading.
Judges, like referees, are used to taking the law as it is written down and applying it to situations before them and they’ve been doing it since before football existed.
Since the nineteenth century, it’s been recognised in legal circles that there are different ways of interpreting the law, a view that football seems to need time catching up on.
One approach by football fans in the aftermath of a decision they don’t agree with is to screenshot the FA Laws of the Game, pointing to words which tend to be ‘reckless’ or ‘dangerous’ in support of their opinion that a foul was deserving of a harsh (or harsher) punishment.
If Mike Dean was a Lord Justice – [Insert your own jokes here] – he’d call this a ‘plain meaning’ approach to the law, essentially taking the law at its word.
But there are other ways of ruling which to varying degrees rely on the judge looking at the intent of the law and it’s here where football gets muddy.
Football fans and media tend towards looking at the rule book to see what it says in black and white after a contentious decision.
Take offside. To be offside is an offence because it is judged to give the attacker an unfair advantage – that’s why the rule was originally introduced.
We’ve seen with recent decisions – two incidents involving Harry Kane, one with Dejan Lovren and the other more recently against Crystal Palace – that the technicalities of what makes something ‘offside’ aren’t quite so easy.
A separate Mata
But there are other examples where, even though the technicalities of the rule seem more straight-forward, the decision is not so clear.
The recent Juan Mata-VAR decision against Huddersfield led to an interesting point being raised on the United Rant podcast.
During the episode, the hosts noted the fact that a change in camera perspective or a choice of frame one forward or one back (a ball doesn’t leave a player’s foot instantly) can change the picture completely.
This all raises an interesting question: what approach to ruling on law will, or should, VAR take?
The decision that VAR was only to be used for ‘clear and obvious’ incidents was supposed to do away with this problem, doing away with subjectivity or interpretation of law.
It’s clear – if not always comprehensible – what the laws say in black and white about offside. However, the Mata incident shows us that even ‘clear and obvious’ decisions aren’t that ‘clear and obvious’.
Mischief and remedy
Another centuries-old school of judicial thought is ‘mischief and remedy’, working out what ‘mischief’ the law was intended to prevent and what ‘remedy’ is a fair retribution for committing it.
The mischief that the offside rule was always supposed to deal with is an unfair advantage for forwards over defenders.
If a forward’s knee is an inch beyond the defensive line, as Mata’s was, is that really the kind of unfair advantage that the rule was intended to remedy?
This is why fans and pundits agonise about marginal offside calls when watching slo-mo replays – maybe something is technically offside but it doesn’t feel like it.
There’s no such thing as a ‘soft penalty’?
Take the oft-seen example of a ‘soft penalty’, say the Dominic Calvert-Lewin vs Dejan Lovren situation from earlier in the season.
Like so many, it was one where there was a degree of contact between defender and attacker, and the attacker went down fairly easily. The relevant part of the rule book for this situation would be that ‘impeding an opponent with contact’ is an offence.
This is pretty broad and a ‘plain reading’ (taking it by the letter of the law) would imply that any impediment constitutes a foul.
If this is the case, then there’s no such thing as a ‘soft’ penalty. Impediment with contact is a foul and a foul in the penalty area is a penalty.
Clearly, the laws of the game don’t intend to outlaw all contact that could be construed as an impediment because such a hard-line approach would result in a foul every twenty seconds. It’s broadly considered that there’s a threshold of impediment beyond which the laws intended to outlaw.
Were VAR to rule on the Calvert-Lewin vs Lovren incident, it would have to be decided whether the omnipotent being in the booth was taking a ‘plain reading’ or ‘mischief and remedy’ approach. And, even then, there are different interpretations available in both.
The FA Cup fiasco
This all brings us back to the Spurs-Rochdale match.
When Heung-Min Son’s penalty was ruled out after he stopped during his run-up, a Twitter argument was very cordially had afterwards between journalists Raphael Honigstein and Gabriele Marcotti about what exactly the rules on this are.
Such debates, though, suggest that the ‘plain reading’ approach to football refereeing is the only valid approach. To solve an infringement, so the logic goes, the Laws of the Game simply need to be consulted and the correct solution will be found.
However, applying a ‘mischief and remedy’ approach to the law, a different idea of refereeing emerges.
According to this approach, referees, like judges, have a legitimately broad scope within which to apply the rules depending on the context of the incident and that’s why seemingly similar situations can yield different decisions.
VAR, though, is presented as being definitive, omniscient and omnipotent.
The real debate
It turns out, then, that, lying beneath the pro- and anti-VAR discussions, there may be a more fundamental argument about the nature of the law within football.
By employing a Video Assistant Referee, football authorities are clearly presenting an approach to the rules that suggest a ‘plain reading’ of the law is plausible.
When VAR is found to be problematic, though, the ‘plain reading’ approach seems to falter. How can you rule on a decision when the VAR is indeterminate? Unless VAR is perfect, so the logic goes, then it has failed.
Implementing a ‘mischief and remedy’ approach, a level of tolerance is implemented which belies the idea that there may be a ‘correct’ decision. Under this approach, you would then talk about ‘better’ or ‘worse’ decisions.
Perhaps, therefore, it is time for football to engage in a conversation about the nature of legality that underpins our ideas about refereeing in football?
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