Category Archives: Sports

Trying to Make Soccer a “Science”: Video Assistant Referee and the Elusive Technocratic Dream

The most important factor determining who wins or loses in the 2019 Women’s World Cup under way in France is not a soccer player, but a piece of technology. VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is a video review system in which the referee can replay incidents in the match, and subsequently change the call on the field after review. It is easy for referees to miss flagrant infractions in real time, so VAR is there to ensure that something like the “hand of God,” Diego Maradona’s infamous goal with his hand, cannot occur again.

In reality, however, VAR has made refereeing decisions more controversial, not less. In the first-round game between Spain and South Africa, a South African defender cleared the ball and play continued. No foul was called, nor was there any reason to suspect there was a foul; yet whoever was monitoring video replays alerted the referee to a potential incident and encouraged the referee to consult VAR instant replay. The defender had cleared the ball and fallen backwards, and during the follow-through of her kick her cleats came off the ground. The Spanish forward ran into the defender’s cleats as she fell backward; upon reviewing the detailed replays over and over, the referee judged this to have been a “studs-up” tackle, awarded a penalty kick to Spain, and gave the defender a yellow card (her second), which sent her off the field and left South Africa with only 10 players. It changed the tide of the game, and South Africa, which had been leading for most of the game, never recovered and left the tournament without scoring another goal.

As someone watching the game live on television, this call seemed extremely questionable; yet it turned out to precipitate a series of ever-more problematic VAR-influenced results. In the game between Jamaica and Italy, the Jamaican goalkeeper made a fantastic penalty kick save—only to have it called back by VAR for having come off of her line too early. (The retaken kick went in.) The same happened in the game between France and Nigeria, but this one was even more consequential: France scored on the retaken penalty kick, won the game 1-0, and knocked Nigeria out of the tournament. Scotland faced a near-identical fate: a saved penalty was called back, the retake went in, and Argentina eliminated the Scots.

The goal-line infractions were so miniscule as to be impossible to spot in the flow of the game, and only barely noticeable on video replay. Referees have turned a blind eye to far more egregious violations of the rule in the past, such as the Women’s World Cup finals of 1999. Nor would it be a consensus view among soccer players, or even referees, to think that a post-clearance collision should be considered a studs-up tackle. VAR caused such headaches in the opening rounds that FIFA decided to change the rules in the middle of the tournament, realizing that the VAR-enabled stringent enforcement of penalty kick rules were likely to throw the game into turmoil during penalty kick shootouts in the knockout rounds.

VAR is the distillation of the modern technocratic vision to blame human error for society’s ills and believe that the answer lies in replacing the human element of judgment with automated, scientific tools. If we are just able to use more advanced technology, the thinking goes, human error will dissipate and what will be left is something “pure,” untainted by uncertainty or individual judgment. It is the same logic of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management of workers to optimize and rationalize human labor, to reduce gray areas with objective, scientific, and standardized facts. The referee—the sine qua non of poor human judgment, in the eyes of any sports fan—should be rendered irrelevant, replaced by a machine unfettered by the burdens of head or heart. Technology now allows us to make this switch from human to machine, to replace the whims of individual referees with the unfeeling science of a machine.

The desire to avoid disastrous refereeing blunders is well-intentioned, but VAR has once again shown the limits of technology in the fundamentally messy realm of human affairs. Soccer, like any human creation, cannot be reduced to a set of stackable, interchangeable building blocks that can be scientifically maximized. Bringing in technology does not eliminate human error; rather, it makes it much more obvious that soccer is, at its core, human judgment all the way down. It provides more information, but more information in no way guarantees the resulting judgment to be any more “scientific” or “factual” than the original call.

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