It's a debate that has raged on for what seems like a lifetime: should we use technology to help referees make decisions? That debate appeared to reach its nadir following the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee, otherwise known as VAR, but now it seems the dispute over whether it should be in place will go and on. Is this debate getting us anywhere though?
The new VAR system is not yet a part of the laws that govern the game, although you imagine that will follow soon enough, but it has been trialled at the FIFA Confederations Cup this year to comical effect.
First, there was the mass brawl that resulted in minimal action being taken, after the incident had been reviewed. Then there was the case of the wrong player being sent off. And then we had the player who received a yellow card for a nasty elbow that deserved a sending off in the final of the competition. On top of all that, the time it takes to come to these (incorrect) decisions has been far too long.
Before the beginning of the tournament, the consensus among supporters of a video assistant was that the point is not to be perfect, but to improve upon what we already have. The game is getting faster and faster, and the referee's need help adjudicating the matches. Having a VAR will mean less mistakes when it comes to the big decisions. But following the tournament, there seem to be more questions than answers.
Sid Lowe, the Guardian's Spanish football correspondent, echoed this sentiment on ESPN FC TV.
If you can minimise mistakes, then great. The problem with that is I don't think it has. The big question mark for me isn't so much the decisions that are or aren't taken because of the VAR system, but the speed with which it happens.
There needs to be some mechanism whereby this isn't an opportunity to stop the game constantly and check things. The game has to have some kind of flow.
On the evidence of this tournament we're not getting as many right as we thought we would.
Raphael Honigstein, also of the Guardian, believes that it will get smoother ahead of its implementation for the upcoming Bundesliga season, but cautions that they need to take the time to get the procedure right.
A lot of the stuff we're talking about is this Grey Zone of when should the VAR come in, should the referee listen, when can the video referee take charge and say "you should take a look at this."
It should be remembered that you will get referees of varying standards (in international football). When it comes to FIFA referees, a lot of them are there for political reasons because they have to be there from that particular confederation. So you will get that odd guy who's not that good and still after watching a replay of a Cameroonian make a foul, he sends off the wrong guy.
Sid and Raphael may be correct in what they say, but are they missing the point? In a piece for the UK Independent this week, Jack Pitt-Brooke makes the startling admission that he was wrong and Paul Ince was right about the VAR system. The writer makes the point that in arguing for its introduction, many pointed to the positive influence it's had on cricket and rugby, but contends that officiating in those sports is not nearly as subjective a task as it is in soccer. Aside from clear-cut things like the ball crossing the line or not, refereeing decisions depend on interpretation. What one onlooker considers a red card, another might consider a tough but fair tackle.
There is a consensus among its defenders that the VAR system will come good eventually. As time goes on and the authorities have more experience using it, the kinks will be ironed out. This may very well happen, and I do believe the timing issue can be solved relatively easily. But that line of thinking fails to consider an extremely important question: what if video technology fundamentally changes the game?
Jon MacKenzie, a sports blogger for The Economist, is both amazed and bemused by the fact that this hasn't been considered by enough people. He is of the opinion that video technology will not only have ramifications for the rules set out in the game's laws but will also have an effect on what he calls their "meta-rules", the ones that are not codified and go largely unspoken.
When you change the conditions of the game according to the rules that govern it, that second set of rules - the implicit rules that exist beyond the remit of the rules and are prompted by it - shifts too and will give rise to other scenarios that appear unfair.
We saw this in the Confederations Cup insofar as the Jara elbow was deemed to be a yellow by the ref. There will be a whole host of other shifts that will emerge with the introduction of VAR.
We can't predict how those shifts will manifest themselves, but for now it's important to acknowledge what exactly we want from the VAR system: to weed out current problems in the game, or create the 'perfect' game, one without controversy. While many fans would say the former is the obvious answer, we're not sure FIFA would agree on the basis of how the video referees were used in the tournament. As per the Law Of Unintended Consequences, there could be unforeseen alterations that change how we view the game fundamentally.
Let's compare it to American Football for a moment. One thing that always gets my goat about gridiron is the interpretations of catches. Take this one, for instance:
The player in question makes a stunning catch in what should be the winning touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys against the Green Bay Packers in the 2012 NFL Playoffs. Instead it's ruled out following a review by the officiating team, due to the ball popping up the slightest bit as he hits the ground. According to the strict letter of the law, it's not a catch, but may I say: what an utter load of bollocks that is. It's akin to losing a legal case on the technicality of someone misspelling the defendant's name on a file.
The outcome of a highly important game is determined not by one's athletic ability or lack thereof, but by a system that requires 100% accuracy. 99.9% isn't good enough. While video technology certainly helps the official's job in a fast-paced environment like the NFL, such standards can do more harm to the viewer's experience. If we are to avoid going down a similar path in soccer, then we need to make a choice, says Jon.
In the end, FIFA has to make a decision about how football is officiated. If it accepts that it is adjudicated by humans then it should be governed by rules which accept this and the rules should be formulated to respect that. If VAR is accepted, then it has to be very clearly defined in its use because otherwise you invite an unhelpful idea of perfection with regard to judging a game that will never exist. Though technology may eradicate some easy mistakes, it will throw up many more much more complicated issues and I don't think many people have given this much thought.
The problem with having the sport refereed solely by humans, with the exception of goal-line technology, is that we know there are problems in the game that need to be sorted out. What do we do then, if we entirely scrap the notion of video technology? Change the rules, Jon suggests.
Offside is controversial more because it has become complicated than because linesmen aren't good enough. The rules should be simplified to make the game easier to adjudicate. If you do this, half of the need for VAR in offside decisions goes I suspect. Foul scenarios will always be controversial because there is no zero sum game between foul and no foul; individuals will see the same event entirely differently.
Now that video assistant referees are being trialled, it's likely that they are here to stay, but the debate will rage on and on. Both sides seem anchored to their positions, unwilling to deliberate on the truly important aspects of the new system. "VAR is not bad per se," Jon adds, "but we need to be honest about why it is that VAR is even in the discourse at all."
Until happens we could be waiting a long time before VAR becomes the answer to our problems.
[Main image via MLS/YouTube]