By Charlotte Lee
At this year’s 2018 FIFA World Cup, 20 percent of Iceland’s total population traveled to Moscow to cheer on their team with their legendary viking clap. When the Mexican underdogs managed a 1-0 victory against the German defending champions, fans were so excited that they institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations in Mexico thought that an earthquake was set off by celebratory jumping.
The simplest sport in the world, football is watched by billions of passionate, patriotic fans in bars, decked out in colorful jerseys, screaming at TV screens. Every four years, the World Cup is an event that transcends time zones and languages.
This year’s World Cup saw the permanent addition of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, used to review referee calls in real time. The video playbacks review: penalties, red cards, player identity, and goals for violations such as offsides.
So one would think that when VAR was added under unanimous decision by the International Football Association in March, fans would be overjoyed to see that their teams would be guaranteed just and fair ruling. But the decision to introduce this new technology has raised a fair share of controversy over spoiling the emotion behind the game.
Already, VAR has been used multiple times to make game changing decisions: Spain’s first goal in its match against Portugal that ended with a tie, South Korea’s first goal against Germany that eventually knocked it out of the tournament for the first time since 1938, and France’s penalty that led it to a 2-1 victory against Australia.
This is not the first time that technology has made its way into the World Cup. In 2014, the tournament in Brazil implemented goal line technology to ensure that the ball really did cross the line. However, VAR is much more complicated: multiple cameras are concentrated at different angles, watching the ball play carefully. If anything doubtful happens, VAR officials will notify the the referee. Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, said that rulings have been increased from 93 percent accuracy to 99. “It’s almost perfect.”
In theory, VAR makes a lot of sense. Players won’t be rewarded penalties for spontaneously diving onto the field. Goals will be awarded fairly. Referees, with solid proof behind their calls, no longer have to face the wrath of angry fans; yet this new technology is still causing more trouble than it claims to solve.
But perfection comes at a cost—not all fans are pleased with the game stopping technology that abruptly disrupts flow. When referees suddenly draw a rectangle with their hands and jogs off the field to watch the replay on a little screen, there’s just something a little plastic about the whole endeavor. No longer is football comprised of the instant emotion and frenzy that fans fell in love with. It seems corrupted, and unnatural.
Football is remarkably simple. People love to watch the game because it’s easy to understand, but also because there is something about the intensity of sport that causes the thousands of fans to feel exactly as the 22 players do on the pitch in front of them. Unlike basketball, baseball, and volleyball, play is constant. The clock keeps on running.
The World Cup is also unpredictable. Take the NBA for example—the shot clock requires that players have to attempt to score often. With such a high sample size of points, it is more likely that the better team wins. The NBA finals also consists of seven total games, which makes it harder for a team to luck out. But in the World Cup, teams are knocked out early. There are only a few goals at most in one game, so one breakthrough can make all the difference.
With more players on the field, luck plays a bigger role in football than it does in purely strength and skill based sports like track and field and swimming. In these sports, outcomes are obvious from the start. But in football, rarely ever is a team doomed for defeat, or guaranteed a victory. Some things will come down to chance, and maybe that’s why it connects people all across the globe: because football is about moments.
For these reasons, the World Cup is the world’s most watched sporting event. Referee calls may be far from perfect, so much of the game is and should be about raw humanity. Perhaps all these high-tech cameras and microphones have no place on the field.