Who’s your father? – A story of VAR’s early days and parenthood

With the introduction of the VAR, football faces an all-too familiar challenge of adapting to change. While it has been brought to help the referees make lesser mistakes, it’s presence has given referees and players more license to pressurise the officials.
The VAR has given one more reason for players to behave like fussy, entitled children on the pitch. The ability of refs to control the temperature of the game will make or break its future in football
The VAR has given one more reason for players to behave like fussy, entitled children on the pitch. The ability of refs to control the temperature of the game will make or break its future in football

Roy Hodgson hit on something important a few weeks ago. Speaking after Crystal Palace’s draw against Newcastle, he was frustrated with a reporter trying to get a comment on a contentious refereeing decision. The former England manager wanted to talk about his team’s performance, not “what happened in 40 seconds of the 95 minutes.” Hodgson is sick to death of talking about referees, and I quite agree with him. Every week brings a new penalty kerfuffle that is debated endlessly and tediously. The introduction of the video assistant referee has only made the matter worse by making discussion even more tedious.

VAR was supposed to eliminate controversial calls but has only made everyone angrier. It is now abundantly clear the issue is not referees and their decisions, but, rather, our own partisanship and immaturity.  VAR has exposed the need for a change in perspective.

For me, that perspective shift came from becoming a parent. Fatherhood, for example, has profoundly shifted my view on referees. Thanks to my new life experience, I have noticed how much the referee resembles a parent disciplining children. I do not mean discipline in the sense of punishment, but, rather, an opportunity for learning and growth. After all, the word “discipline,” I am told by every parenting book on the subject, comes from the root word discipulus, meaning “pupil.”

Discipline is a word especially close to my heart as a parent as I wrestle with what rules to create and enforce. The Professional Game Match Officials estimates its referees make around 245 decisions every match. Roughly every 22 seconds, the man or woman in the middle must decide when to call a foul, play advantage, have a chat, or administer punishment.  It is the same with parenting.  Thankfully, millions of people do not tune in to analyze whether I made the correct decision and then phone in to popular parenting radio programs: “Did you see the way he quickly gave in to the child’s whining? He’s a disgrace! An absolute disgrace! And don’t get me started on bedtime. He was rubbish! Rubbish!”

I found myself evaluating referee’s performances not based on whether a call was incorrect or not but on how he managed the game. Normally, this is a coded phrase supporters use when their team screws up and the referee quite rightly punishes them. It is possible though for a referee to make correct calls yet fail to “disciple” the players.  A perfect example was Chelsea’s first match of this season against Burnley.

The referee that day, Craig Pawson, set out his stall early with a fairly persnickety yellow card for Marcos Alonso; that incident was quickly followed by a straight red for Gary Cahill in the 15th minute for a dangerous tackle. Stamford Bridge erupted in anger. In Pawson’s defense, he was not incorrect to take the action that he did, but it seemed rather harsh. Certainly those of a Chelsea persuasion thought so.

I thought the series of 50-50 calls that followed was more problematic, however. Pawson had several opportunities to calm things down but instead made a series of finicky, marginal calls. He resembled a supply teacher determined to gain the respect of an unruly class by unwisely enforcing dress code violations.  And, like children forced to follow a rule “because I said so,” the stadium seethed.

One incident came two minutes after Cahill’s sending off. Cesc Fabregas and Jeff Hendrick collided going for a ball. Pawson whistled and indicated a free kick for Burnley. Fabregas laughed in disbelief and sarcastically applauded. Is that a bookable offence? Absolutely, and the referee brandished the card.  Were any lessons learned? My Spanish lip-reading is not perfect, but Fabregas’ mutterings about Pawson’s mother indicate he did not see this as a teachable moment.

It was at this point that the Guardian’s man on the minute-by-minute noted Pawson had “lost control of the match.” In parenthood, this is when the ominous count to three no longer works. How does a parent or referee regain authority? Brute force? Time outs, i.e., sin bins?

The referees are under constant pressure, from the players on the pitch, and the managers outside it. One wonders if they live a more unforgiving life than the athletes themselves.

Had there been a video assistant referee on duty, he would not have been much help here. None of the calls were “clear and obvious errors,” and, thus, none would have been overturned. Pawson though failed to practice what every parent discovers while enforcing house rules: one must always be firm, except for the times when it is better to be flexible. It is a skill gained through experience and much trial and error. Perhaps the FA should experiment with parent assistant referees (PAR) to help the match official come to more judicious decisions.

But what would have been just? VAR has exquisitely shown football fans that the correct call is not always the most just decision. But what is justice? This is a question philosophers have been asking for millennia. Socrates, for example, spends a great deal of time defining it with his companions in Plato’s Republic. 2,350 years later we have entrusted an individual with a whistle with the moral authority to answer the question. In many of the Romance languages, the referee is “the arbiter,” which underscores his or her job: determining justice within the laws of the game.

Former referee Howard Webb was a policeman, and it was considered useful experience. However, the police, while granted some discretion, are not judges. Webb was not in the profession of dispensing justice in his day job.  He is, however, a father of three children. This experience surely was much more useful.

The 2007 League Cup Final was a showcase of Webb’s parenting rather than his policing. As a melee erupted in the final minutes, Webb simply picked out the two instigators and held their shirts firmly until everyone calmed down. He looked more like an annoyed dad whose children had embarrassed him in public than a hardened police sergeant dealing with two serial offenders.

In Chelsea’s opening match against Burnley, Pawson handed out two red cards. Was he correct to do so? Yes. Could he have interpreted the laws of the game loosely and kept 22 men on the pitch? Yes, but would that have been just? Is that what we, the viewing public, want?

No, we do not want justice. We want to rage about VAR. Manchester United’s recent FA Cup tie with Mata’s disallowed goal (the one of squiggly line fame) was a perfect example of technology getting it right, yet fans were still upset because the way the referee arrived at the correct decision. It is obvious we do not want truth, rectitude, and probity in football. We want spectacle. We want controversy. We want referees with a flair for the dramatic like Mike Dean.

Football fans claim to loathe Dean because he ”always wants to make it about him.” If you are the parent of a child acting out to receive negative attention, there’s a simple (but not easy) fix: stop giving that attention. Yet our postgame fury and indignation invariably make it about him, VAR, Pawson, Webb, or whoever else officiated the match. In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby wrote about the elements that made up a perfect match viewing experience. One of the crucial ingredients was a sense of injustice following a poor decision from the referee. Football fans do not want a referee that is just, not really; we are searching for catharsis.

Match officials are a release valve for our anger and frustration. Primatologists talk about the concept of displacement. If, say, an adult baboon is under stress it will wallop a younger, smaller baboon as a way of relieving it. Any parent with a number of children has seen this effect firsthand; maybe the oldest child has a bad day at school and takes it out on the middle child who then takes it out on the next youngest, and so it goes until the smallest child is angrily kicking a stuffed animal across the room.

We are all Homo sapiens here. It is time we start acting like it. We are, most of us, savvy enough to appreciate VAR and referees for what they are and what they are not. The easiest way to enjoy football more is to stop treating them as objects of displacement and appreciate their contributions. Football would be better for it. Indeed, the game is already benefiting from it. In Italy, for example, VAR’s rollout has been far from smooth, but diving has decreased midway through the season by 23%. Attackers know such tactics (i.e., cheating) will be spotted by video assistant referee. Defenders similarly know that shirt pulling and cynical tackles (i.e., cheating) is much riskier as reflected by an 18% drop in yellow cards.

More importantly though, VAR has forced us to reexamine the role of the referee in the same way becoming a father has compelled me to reassess parenthood: the goal is not to be perfect, but to be just. The officials cannot be perfect, so every match presents us, the viewer, with a choice: continue sipping on the poison of manufactured controversy or find joy in the beautiful game. Like when Neymar smashes a ball into the side of the referee’s head. Or, for me, getting to share the sport I love with my two children. What a pity it would be for their memories of football with their dad to consist of me pouting over poor refereeing decisions.