It’s not VAR, It’s Capitalism
by: Pranavesh Subramanian
Illustration by Ego Heriyanto
Change is terrifying. When the (English) Premier League decided to introduce video assistant referees (VARs) in 2019, there was an instant moral panic: it’s not football anymore mate, the game’s gone. In a YouTube video titled ‘Wolves Fans singing at Full Force tonight’, uploaded in August 2019, fans of the English football club can be heard angrily chanting: ‘Fuck VAR, fuck VAR, fuck VAR’. Wolves’ Ruben Neves has just scored against Manchester United, but the VAR decides to check if his teammate was offside. The goal eventually stands, but the chants continue: ‘Fuck VAR’. ‘Respect’, reads the top comment on the video, ‘heard it loud and clear on Sky’, referring to the television broadcast.
The anger is not invalid. The offside rule is straightforward — an attacker must not have passed the last opposition defender when the pass is played before a goal. For over a hundred years, line-referees standing on the touchline have made this decision based on their split-second judgement. Does it look like the attacker has crossed the defender? Yes? Offside. No? Not offside.
With VAR, each frame is replayed till it begins to play tricks on your mind; imaginary lines are drawn to determine potential offsides — a fairly mundane event on a football pitch is dissected to the point that it appears more an abject performance art piece. This whole spectacle plays out just to determine one of two binaries — is the referee correct? Or is the referee incorrect?
What the fundamental philosophy of VAR overlooks is that football — like much of every other part of life — does not operate in binaries of correct and incorrect as much as it does in grey areas and randomness. Indeed, camera replays have shown that the margins between correct and incorrect are hardly straightforward — they have unearthed complications not otherwise visible to the naked eye. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino has found a goal disallowed because a replay angle suggests his armpit to be offside; in another instance, a Wolves goal was disallowed because Jonny Castro’s toenail appears to have crossed the defensive line. Games gone, mate.
I’ve often found myself ranting about VAR and the futility of these football rules — how something completely arbitrary which is entirely dependent on context, something flexible, with room for interpretation, has suddenly been set in stone. A friend pointed out that this is, infact, a story as old as time itself — quite literally. The concept of time, at one period, was a rough measure for farmers to sow and harvest their crops. The minute it transformed into a strict unit, followed till the last second, coincided with the rise of industrialisation and the Industrial Revolution.
“What the fundamental philosophy of VAR overlooks is that football — like much of every other part of life — does not operate in binaries of correct and incorrect as much as it does in grey areas and randomness.”
And what have these last few decades been, if not football’s Industrial Revolution? The social relations of football have long gone beyond just the footballer and the audience. Super-agents, international broadcasters, suspicious Russian oil barons-turned-football club owners — football is a global industry, and with every passing year, everyone wants an increasingly larger slice of the metaphorical pie.
The Italian thinker Maurizio Lazzarato uses the Deluzian allegory of a ‘machine’ to understand capitalism. For Lazzarato, one becomes a subject to the machine — a ‘cog in the wheels’ of capitalism — when one functions only to fulfil the demands of the machine of capitalism. Football, as it exists today, is a just cog in the wheels of the machinic football industry.
The Premier League alone is broadcast across 188 countries as of 2019. Football clubs go on global pre-season tours, ‘fan parks’ pop up as screening zones; at one point, Manchester United had an official ‘Noodle Partner’ in Nissin. Football is entirely reliant on this network to function — the football industry — with global sponsorships and broadcast rights being the most lucrative.
The emergence of satellite television in the early 1990s facilitated global broadcast deals for European football leagues. Fans across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, overnight transformed from a distant audience to a target market. The revenue generated from these deals is unprecedented; in 2019, the bottommost team in the Premier League was guaranteed to receive at least £44 million from international broadcast deals alone, with more money at stake contingent to performance and other global sponsorship deals. The better a club plays, the more it stands to be broadcast. In this context, a win could lead to a windfall, a loss could be catastrophic. The margins between winning and losing have entire livelihoods riding on them; it’s too lucrative to miss out on winning.
“And what have these last few decades been, if not
football’s Industrial Revolution? The social relations of football have long
gone beyond just the footballer and the audience. Super-agents, international
broadcasters, suspicious Russian oil barons-turned-football club owners —
football is a global industry, and with every passing year, everyone wants an
increasingly larger slice of the metaphorical pie.”
For such tiny margins to determine futures of entire footballing institutions collides with the rise of individualism — where under neoliberalism, larger, structural problems are isolated into individual actions. The poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough; the rich are rich because they work hard; no predetermined structural inequalities are considered to play a role.
Football has had its own individualist lens-shift. The minute a game ends, it is analysed endlessly by ex-professionals, self proclaimed ‘pundits’. But instead of looking at broader tactical decisions, wins and losses are often attributed to isolated, individual incidents — a mistaken red-card, an offside goal that was never called offside, a false hand-ball. When these isolated incidents are framed as the cause for a win or loss, and when a win or loss determines a massive financial windfall, it becomes more important to eliminate mistakes. Enter VAR.
VAR embodies our obsession with individualism; it is unwittingly symptomatic of capitalism. The scrutiny of a player’s armpit being offside and ruling a goal out is not as much a VAR problem as it is a capitalism problem. Why should the survival of a football club — and the mental wellbeing of the community it exists for — hinge on a toenail crossing an imaginary line? It raises larger questions about capitalism, and how there is an urgent need to understand football as a space of community first, rather than as a financial plaything, the sporty billionaire’s adventurous investment.
As this piece is written, there are calls for VAR to be ‘fixed’ — to not scrutinise decisions over and over and over again till a mistake is identified, and to use VAR only when a glaring error is overlooked. A question that needs to be asked is: would that make any difference at all? The goalposts will be moved, once again we’ll start questioning why some decisions were chosen to be scrutinised, and why some decisions were not — what defines a glaring error?
The problem was never with VAR identifying a mistake. The problem was the consequences of a mistake; a loss having fatal financial consequences, an offside toenail potentially determining the survival of a footballing institution. ‘Fixing’ VAR is like banning plastic straws to save the planet, buying an umbrella to fix a leaky ceiling, slapping a band-aid onto a severed leg. Reconfigure VAR as much as you like, we will never be rid of this discourse. It was never a VAR problem to begin with, it was always a capitalism problem.
“The problem was never with VAR identifying a mistake. The problem was the consequences of a mistake; a loss having fatal financial consequences, an offside toenail potentially determining the survival of a footballing institution. ‘Fixing’ VAR is like banning plastic straws to save the planet, buying an umbrella to fix a leaky ceiling, slapping a band-aid onto a severed leg.”
About the writer:Pranavesh is an alternative comedian and writer based in New Delhi, and is a graduate from the MA Cultural Studies programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is interested in the confluence of capitalism and popular culture — specifically comedy, sport, and Hindi and Tamil cinema. He forms 1/4th of the alternative comedy project Brainfart Productions, and when not thinking of comedy or capitalism, he can be found playing the video game Football Manager.