With that collective wit for which football fans are justly renowned, the Spurs contingent at the Etihad Stadium broke into song last weekend when Manchester City’s winning goal was ruled out in the last minute. “VAR, my lord, VAR,” they chanted, to the tune of Kumbaya, as the video assistant referee scrubbed out Gabriel Jesus’s dramatic clincher, adjudging Aymeric Laporte to have handled the ball with the most glancing of touches. It was a case of Jesus being thwarted by a higher authority.
But if Spurs fans saw VAR as a kind of divine intervention, a deus ex machina worthy of devotional praise, many other observers espied the work of the devil. The Match of the Day pundit Danny Murphy wrote that it “spoiled the end of a great game”.
His comments echoed those made by the Wolves manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, who, after a similar incident against Leicester, argued that such delayed decisions were “not good for atmosphere”. To “celebrate a non-goal”, he noted, was not in “the spirit of the game”.
There was much talk about a loss of atmosphere, and the threat of goalscoring becoming a provisional experience, dependent on prolonged external review for confirmation. And Ian Holloway seemed to view the disallowing of City’s goal as evidence that the UK needed a swift Brexit, “because you cannot have someone telling us how to do our own game”, though he later insisted that what he really meant was that the combination of a new handball law and VAR was an injustice analogous to remaining in the EU in contravention of the popular vote – or something like that.
To all of which, the only sensible response is calm down. Let’s remind ourselves why we now have VAR. It arrived after many years of flagrant refereeing errors being repeatedly exposed in slow-motion on TV. Cast your mind back to the second leg of the World Cup qualifying play-off between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in 2009. In extra time Thierry Henry controls a long free-kick with his hand, guiding the ball twice with his palm, before crossing to William Gallas to score the goal that knocked a furious Republic of Ireland out of the 2010 World Cup.
It was against the spirit of the game, the watching world agreed – all, that is, except the French fans inside the stadium, who celebrated like mad. The Irish players ran after the referee vainly trying to get him to overrule his myopic decision. They didn’t think: ‘Oh, but what will that do to the atmosphere?’ They weren’t worried about the possibility of interrupting the jubilation of the home fans.
But let’s recall what happened when an over-sensitivity to home fans’ emotions affected referees’ performances. Every travelling supporter can wax hysterical about shocking examples of “homer” officials, who have been a little too attuned to the majority sentiments of a crowd. Perhaps away fans are simply grievance-ridden (in spite of statistical evidence strongly suggesting referees favour home teams), and are more likely to feel embattled and neglected.
So let’s take a more neutral example: the 2002 World Cup, which was held jointly in South Korea and Japan. Remember the World Cup is the pinnacle of football, the spectacle watched by billions that showcases the very best, the elite level to which all players and officials aspire, and an example to the rest of football.
In that World Cup South Korea, supported by their passionate fans, played Spain in the quarter-final. South Korea lost 3-0. Except, in reality, South Korea won on penalties, because all three Spanish goals, demonstrably legitimate, were ruled out, the first by Gamal Ghandour, the Egyptian referee, for obscure reasons, the second wrongly adjudged offside and the third ruled out because the ball – clearly still in – was said to have crossed the dead-ball line before Fernando Morientes headed it in. Many other decisions went against Spain in that match, which was roundly denounced as a scandal.
However, it was almost a model of fair play by comparison with the previous Korea match, against Italy in the second round. Within three minutes of the start, the Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno awarded a penalty to Korea, when Seol Ki-hyeon fell mysteriously in the Italian penalty area. Fortunately Gianluigi Buffon saved the resulting kick.
Moreno went on to make a serious of extraordinary decisions, almost all of them in Korea’s favour. Paolo Maldini was kicked in the head and Alessandro Del Piero was elbowed in the face, without any punishment to the Koreans inflicting the damage. Then Francesco Totti, on a yellow card, was sent off after being booked for diving, though he was clearly tripped. And in extra time Damiano Tommasi had an obviously legitimate goal bizarrely ruled out for offside.
In both matches the Korean fans were ecstatic after the perverse rulings. Can you just imagine how unspeakably unkind it would have been to curtail their celebrations by overturning these egregious refereeing errors? Forget the disappointment of the Italy and Spain players, who had been working their whole careers to reach this stage, and think of the unbearable deflation of those joyful fans. Because apparently preventing that feeling is the spirit of football.
Incidentally, though South Korea enjoyed an abundance of refereeing favours, no one would suggest there was any skulduggery or corruption involved. These things happen, after all. And only cynics would look at the fact that Moreno was later imprisoned for heroin trafficking as any kind of reflection on his moral standing or professional reliability.
Yes, VAR could be speeded up – and doubtless will be as practitioners adjust to its demands – and, yes, there is an argument that the new handball law is too stringent and requires a little thoughtful reform. But it’s madness to confuse these separate issues with the emotional requirements of a celebrating crowd.
The overwhelming majority of goals scored this season have been subject to no noticeable review and their accompanying celebrations have not been remotely hindered. And while it was a tad unfortunate for the City fans that their ecstasy was rudely stopped, just as had happened in the last minute of last season’s Champions League quarter-final against the same opposition, think for a moment of the unconfined joy and relief experienced by the travelling Spurs fans. Are they any less deserving of their emotions?
Vertiginous highs and crushing lows. Or as the old spiritual goes: Someone’s laughing, Lord, kumbaya. Someone’s crying, Lord, kumbaya. That’s the spirit of football, and long may it last.