VAR and the Slow Death of the Goal Celebration

Video Assistant Referee VAR Spurs Premier League Fans
Art by Tushar Dey

March 3, 2018 will go down in history as the day that football began shifting away from everything that made the sport so special. This is the day that VAR (video assistant referee) technology was formally written into the Laws of the Game, as a means to reduce the amount of errors in decisions made by on-field referees, with the express intent of improving the game. In this respect, at least in the English Premier League, VAR has failed.

The use of VAR technology does have its benefits, of course. Video reviews for offside, handball, and other incidents on the pitch do often come to the right conclusion. When it works, VAR is swift, accurate, and helps to make football a fairer game. A room of appointed officials equipped with an array of screens and magic lines to meticulously scrutinise every moment of a football game: what could possibly go wrong?

A lot, actually. VAR is supposed to intervene when a clear and obvious error has been made by a match official, and advise them of the correct decision. Through the years, something has been lost in translation when it comes to ‘clear and obvious,’ though, with the offside rule in particular now being adjudged on the basis of a toenail here or there. In essence, VAR has become too involved and too methodical. The frequency with which VAR is called into play now, particularly in the English Premier League, is proving disruptive to the overall experience of the beautiful game. According to ESPN, there were 120 incidents of VAR intervention in the 2021/22 season, with 43 goals being disallowed across the league.

We watch football because we want to see goals, those most special of moments that cause entire stadiums to erupt in jubilation. VAR is slowly but surely sucking the joy out of those moments and will eventually lead to the death of the goal celebration altogether if things continue on this trajectory. We are now more than four years on from the introduction of the technology in football, and the innovative breakthrough that was supposed to improve the game has done very little to assuage the pain of a controversial decision going against your team. If anything, VAR has gone backwards in that respect, and now only serves to inflict more misery on players and supporters. 

Unless we are willing to let robots and artificial intelligence take over entirely, which is never a good idea judging by the movies, there is always going to be room for human error regardless of how much technology the referees have to assist them. A system that is supposed to be flawless, is far from it. In the past, when a referee missed something with his own eyes, we could understand to a degree that this was just part and parcel of the game. We would be upset, sure, but we would move on. But when a team of officials watching the game on monitors, with the ability to replay the action, still get the key decisions wrong, the game becomes extremely frustrating.

What’s worse, though, is the speed at which these decisions are being made. One would hope that a clear and obvious error could be identified and corrected in under a minute. We are now seeing VAR reviews taking up to five minutes sometimes, and that is the real killer when it comes to the supporter experience at a football match.

Time and time again, we see incredible scenes of celebration as teams score crucial goals in the fight for valuable points or a place in the next round of a cup competition. Last-minute winners that send fans into ecstasy. All this, and then an excruciating wait as match officials examine the evidence and determine whether a goal should stand or be chalked off because someone’s kneecap crossed a line or someone stood too close to the goalkeeper. Far too often, VAR has left a sour taste in the mouth of football supporters around the world as their team’s fate is decided by silent adjudicators in a far-off room. But it’s about more than just points gained or lost, VAR is damaging the very essence of the game. Moments of inspiration from players, a crowd cheering as one: all these special experiences tarnished by scrupulous over-analysis.

For me personally, VAR has snatched away some brilliant moments over the years, and it struck again when Tottenham Hotspur played Sporting Lisbon in game week five of this year’s Champions League. Spurs needed a win to secure their place in the next round of the tournament and had come from behind to level the score at 1-1. Then, in the final moments of the game, Harry Kane pounced on a loose ball in the box and looked to have secured all three points. My 12-year-old daughter, who has rarely given football a chance, had her interest piqued by this game as we watched along at home. The rollercoaster of frustration and elation – a common ride for any Spurs fan – was infectious that night, and I finally saw my years of pleading with her to care about the sport I love so much pay off. She was absorbed, and when Kane prodded home the ball, we went crazy in our living room. 

Then, the celebrations stopped, both at home and at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. I had to explain what VAR does and why the goal might not count. For upwards of five minutes we waited, the inertia around the stadium mirroring our tension and panic at home. The goal was eventually ruled out for offside in controversial circumstances, based on lines that may or may not have been accurate, and rules that no one really seemed certain of. In the end, the points didn’t matter all that much and Spurs still qualified at the top of their group. But what was lost, perhaps permanently, is that emotion and wonder that comes with watching football. For a young child, I can think of no worse advert for the sport than seeing such a special moment reversed in these confusing and infuriating circumstances.

It’s the kind of experience that has affected so many and makes the notion of a goal celebration all but redundant. Manchester United fan Zak said “VAR has definitely taken the enjoyment away. The game isn’t the same.” For Zak, goal celebrations are a thing of the past. “I don’t celebrate anymore because I’m too scared of a goal being overturned. I haven’t passionately celebrated a goal since the Euro 2020 final.”

VAR may not be used in the second tier of English football, but the memory of its negative impact is still felt by Norwich City fan Cory, who recalls a decision that went against his team in 2019. The Canaries were bottom of the Premier League, but found themselves 1-0 up against Tottenham Hotspur when Teemu Pukki was played through on goal to put his side two to the good. “It was a night game and the atmosphere is always special for those. It really felt like lift off, as if we were on our way to a big win again after a rough few months,” Cory explained. The Norwich faithful were deflated moments later though, as the goal was disallowed for offside in what the Sky Sports commentary team described as the “finest of margins.” In the end, Norwich had to settle for a point and would later go on to be relegated that season.

Cory remembers the “horrific sinking feeling” of the decision, going into half-time having “expended all this energy on celebrating and then being faced with such an emotional whiplash.” It’s an experience which has left Cory, like many others, reluctant to get excited about a goal now, instead left “wondering if it’s going to be taken away from you again.”

For Liverpool fan Archie, the use of VAR doesn’t complement the modern game and the tactical-heavy approach of many teams. “These fine margins shouldn’t be assessed in the detail they are.” Evidently, the decisions we see week in, week out now are to the benefit of no one, as Archie explains: “Being offside by a toe isn’t an advantage, it’s a technicality. It’s making the whole game boring.”

These kinds of experiences don’t just harm the atmosphere at the time; they have a long-term impact for supporters. Cory envisions a future where VAR means he would “immerse and engage with matches” less and less. We are at a pivotal turning point in the sport, it seems. With VAR involvement rising, these bitter, agonising moments will become commonplace, and disillusioned fans will abandon the art of the goal celebration entirely.

Improvements need to be made quickly and they would be fairly simple to implement too. VAR decisions would be far more palatable if we could hear the conversations between match officials upon a review; we may not agree with their choices but at least we could understand the logic behind them. Similarly, a time limit on reviews would reduce the impact on the momentum of a game and minimise the suffering of fans as we await the all-important decisions.

The old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but VAR is most certainly broken. We are on a path now where, if those in charge of the sport don’t act fast, we will not only see football lose its integrity, but something far more valuable: the supporters at the heart of the game.