We’re going to have widespread video-assisted refereeing in soccer sooner rather than later. La Liga is instituting it in some Copa del Rey matches next year, and the Eredivisie is going to have it in league games in 2018. MLS is testing it out in some of their lower leagues. FIFA claim the 2018 World Cup will feature replay review of dubious goals, penalty calls, and red cards. The folks at UEFA just saw refs in a Champions League quarterfinal allow Real Madrid an offside equalizer that put them through against Bayern Munich, so they must be considering it too. Soccer, like all games that are fluid and feature many bodies moving at once, is impossible to officiate perfectly. The VAR system will ensure that at least the most egregious screwups are remedied.
This is fine, as far as it goes. It’s hard to stand against greater fairness, against getting it right. Deserve feels like a silly word to use in sports, but professional athletes work very hard and fans pay steep ticket prices, especially for World Cup and Champions League matches, so perhaps they’re owed contests unblemished by scoreline-altering human error. And even if deserve has nothing to do with it, the world is trending toward technocracy all the time. More data collection, more automation, smart everything down to our refrigerators.
If fighting this is ineffectual—people and governments rarely say no to something peddled to them as cutting-edge—it’s worth mourning what’s lost as we get fitter, happier, more productive. It’s a way of asserting our humanity, at least. I’ve been living in Chicago for a decade, and the streetlights have always been yellowy-orange. In fact, they’ve been that way for nearly forty years. The city will soon replace the sodium bulbs that produced the citrusy hue with marginally more efficient bluish-white LED ones. While progress is progress and city hall in this town is an inexorable force, I’ll miss the color of my old nighttime memories. I’ve spent a lot of two-in-the-mornings making Chicago feel like my own, and now they’re going to change the tint on me.
I came to soccer around the same time I arrived in the midwest. Well, I came to it at age five, because I went to kindergarten in the 90s, but I started watching it with great interest in 2008. One of the first things that struck me, after years of basketball, baseball, and football, was the relatively free-flowing nature of the sport. This is different from the sport being exciting. Soccer is not ninety minutes of nonstop thrills, but the ever-ticking nature of the clock ensures that nothing save for the rare serious injury or contested red card halts play for more than a minute or so. Even especially choppy matches contain many fewer discrete acts than any American sport—a foul bleeds into a free kick, which bleeds into a defensive header, which bleeds into a counterattack, which bleeds into a throw-in, etc. These sequences can unfold slowly or rapidly, but the game is happening all the time.
Because the game is happening all the time, there are no intrusions from the corporate forces that sponsor it. Or more precisely, the intrusions are subservient to the game: kit logos, pitch-side ads, little chyrons next to the clock overlay that let you know these next fifteen minutes are brought to you by NAPA. As annoying as this stuff is, it’s extremely preferable to the game stopping every eight minutes to remind you to buy motor oil. The NBA has built TV timeouts into its contests because they decided coaches don’t stop the game enough to satisfy advertisers. The NFL is shameless about cutting to commercial every time there’s the slightest break in the action. Outside of halftime, when everyone is using the bathroom or fixing a sandwich, soccer doesn’t afford InBev and Pfizer and BBVA Compass the opportunity to stare down a camera and give you the hard sell. Baseball is supposedly the pastoral sport, but soccer gets closer to that ideal, if still being pretty far from it. (The kit logos, the little NAPA chyrons.) It is, in this era where everything popular has been corporatized, remarkably like itself: twenty-two men or women knocking a ball around a big green expanse with minimal interruption.
I primarily watch La Liga, and the standard of refereeing is awful. The blown offside calls, the capricious doling out of cards, the way refs further infuriate aggrieved players—all of it is frustrating. But I’m okay with it, not because I’m not fervently invested or because the errors don’t anger me, but because I’ve lived with the incompetence long enough to accept a couple dubious yellow cards, or even the odd match-ruining penalty decision. Refs mess up, and in the games I see every weekend, they mess up more than they probably should. I would like them to mess up less, and I’d like Chicago’s lights to stay yellow forever, but I’d also like it if oligarchs and oil barons and bankers got the hell out of club ownership, and I’d like Chicago Public Schools to get the funding they deserve. Bigger fish, etc.
Weighing refereeing mishaps against the prospects of increased stoppages and of turning games into forensic and epistemological exercises, and the more insidious prospect of ready-made windows to slip in few words from our sponsors turns me into an ideologue. Just give me the purest distillation of the sport you can, built-in injustices and all. I suppose I value the oasis-like quality of soccer—games as a retreat from the world—more than I do all matches ending with fully correct results. The former is an essential aspect of the sport, and the latter has to do with fairness, which isn’t unimportant either. But to achieve one, we must sacrifice some degree of the other, and that’s not a compromise I would make, if I had any say.