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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Why VAR chaos is set to ruin the World Cup

The Thursday column

Pierluigi Collina’s message on offside calls should alarm all fans of the World Cup
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Looking forward to the World Cup? You shouldn’t be. It’s going to be awful, horrific, atrocious. It will be the worst major tournament ever staged. Sadly, I’m being deadly serious.

What should be a festival of football that brightens up the planet for a month will instead quickly descend into a dismal shambles because the sport we love so much is going to be disfigured by the vile and unattainable quest for perfect decision-making from the match officials.

It was bad enough that the current version of the video assistant referee, which has created chaos rather than clarity since its introduction, is being foisted on the biggest sporting event of them all, but on Tuesday an appalling new ingredient was added to this dire recipe that will almost certainly ruin the tournament.

It was delivered casually, almost as an after-thought, by legendary arbiter Pierluigi Collina and was reported on by the media largely without any interpretation, which is staggering given its potential implications, and the message was this: assistant referees have been instructed not to raise their flag for tight offside calls.

This should have caused an outcry, but it didn’t. It will. Presumably everyone took the view that by playing on and then getting the VAR to check whether or not it was offside it will eliminate the possibility of valid goals being chalked off for a wrongly raised flag, which is a good thing.

Well, yes, in theory it is, but the likelihood is that this directive to linesmen will actually create enormous, negative changes to the game and, as with most things relating to VAR, through a laughable lack of foresight will require either a rapid U-turn or football will die.

Let’s look at a couple of perfectly plausible scenarios beyond the obvious one previously described.

First, a striker is played in behind the opposition defence but the linesman does not flag because he has been told not to. The player shoots at goal but the keeper saves it and launches a counter-attack. This breaks down and the side who were originally attacking launch a fresh offensive that leads to a goal.

Do they then go back and check the original offside? And if it was off, do they award a free kick?

What if the original attack results in the ball going out for a goal kick? Or a corner? When do they check the offside and if it was off do they give the goal kick, the corner or a free kick?

If there is a close offside call that is followed by a spell in which the ball stays in play for three minutes, at what point do they check for offside and, if it was, stop the game?

These are the grey and dangerous areas into which this pandora’s box leads us. And that is quite apart from the other practical issues that will alter football for the worst.

Such as the extra time that will be required to check every goal and every contentious offside and whether that will be adequately added on at the end of each half.

And the fact fans will never be able to celebrate goals with the same surge of spontaneous jubilation because they will always fear an infringement will be spotted.

Not to mention, of course, that the vast majority of offside decisions are tight so effectively, unless an attacking player is ambling back to an onside position when the ball is played towards him, we will never see flags being lifted and the VAR will be asked to rule on almost all of them.

That’s a lot of referrals. Players are caught offside roughly five times per game but of course that does not account for those tight calls in which players are deemed to be onside so we could be talking about ten stoppages per match.

I hope I am wrong on this, I really do. But the announcement that assistants are now effectively no longer ruling on offsides represents just the kind of sinister expansion of the original premise of video refereeing that I feared.

If linesmen are meant not to rule on offsides, why should refs rule on other types of infringement? There is no logic to one and not the other being absolved of their responsibilities.

Ultimately, the ability to run around the pitch blowing a whistle when the VAR tells you to will be the sole qualification for being a referee. Mo Farah will be the perfect candidate.

There will be times during the World Cup when incorrect decisions are remedied, giving those weirdos who think football is as important as a murder trial the “justice” they are looking for.

But I would have big money on the VAR creating more controversy and mayhem than it does benefits.

There is a silver lining. Sporting Index were last night offering total tournament offsides at 270-280, which represents 4.2 per game (extra time is not included).

M’learned friend Kevin Pullein informs me offsides averaged 4.5 at the last World Cup (his figures include extra time) and 3.7 at the last European Championship.

This leads me to suggest the current quote is far too high given the people who have traditionally awarded offsides have been told not to bother this time. Presumably some will be picked up in the course of video reviews but because it is anyone’s guess whether all contentious decisions will be looked at and called if found to have taken place or they will just ignore them and play on there must be every chance the number of offsides in Russia will be significantly lower.

It might even be the case that defenders will be instructed to drop off rather than catch opponents offside, which would make sense on the basis you are never going to get lucky and trigger a flag incorrectly.

I shall sell offsides in the expectation that at least I will make a profit from the impending vandalisation of a sport I have loved intensely for my entire life.

Media shouldn't tar all punters with same brush

The media-led focus on gambling continues even after the FOBTs victory, the latest little jab being the Guardian’s call last week for TV adverts promoting betting to be banned during matches that are screened before the watershed.

This very specific call in a leader column was backed up by a claim that “there are really only two classes of people for whom gambling has a certain logic: those who can well afford their losses and those who can’t afford not to win because they have no reasonable prospects of making money otherwise”.

That may be true, but not every move we make has to be perfectly logical. Life would be dull to the point of not worth bothering with if all we ever did was make logical decisions.

Perhaps the significant majority of punters who are able to bet responsibly but are neither rolling in money nor possessing the time or the wisdom to turn themselves into professional punters do so because a little risk or two along the way actually spices up life a bit.

When humans evolved, just like every other creature, we faced a few dangers in our daily lives. We were vulnerable to starvation if we did not gather enough food, we froze to death if we failed to create warmth and there were various predators roaming around that could eat us alive given half a chance.

This is no longer the case for the vast majority of people lucky enough to enjoy the relative wealth and security that living in safe countries like Britain and Ireland affords.

So there is nothing wrong with chancing a few quid on a horse or a football team provided it does not lead to a situation whereby people are left without food or heating because a bit of fun has become a harmful addiction.

It is, of course, a good thing that vulnerable gamblers are given adequate protection and it is hoped that continues to be the case when the papers move on to whatever their next campaign is.

But while the spotlight continues to be shone on the betting industry, there is a danger having a punt will find itself unfairly stigmatised for the first time since the mid-1990s before the National Lottery suddenly turned what had been regarded as a rather seedy hobby into something more socially acceptable.

Prior to the lottery betting had been regarded as basically men, usually pulling hard on a cigarette, furtively walking through the coloured ribbons that guarded the threshold of a betting shop to squander the gas bill on a string of hopelessly slow horses.

That image has since been transformed so that adverts these days portray far cooler people tapping away on their mobile phones while doing all sorts of everyday activities. But the current anti-gambling stance favoured by the Guardian and other papers threatens to return us to the days of betting being seen as something less socially acceptable than has been the case in recent times.

This is unjust. Problem gambling is an important issue that needs to be properly dealt with, but not everyone who bets has a problem and not every problem is going to be solved by banning this, that and the other.

The most interesting part of the Guardian comment was the claim that “it is harder to walk away from a mobile phone than a gambling machine”, and I believe this to be true.

Which is why, as I have stated here before, the decision to effectively ban FOBTs in shops while not at the same time creating similarly drastic limits on equivalent digital products is actually socially irresponsible.

It is a far better for people to be betting on the identity of the next goalscorer in a World Cup match, thus adding a little extra thrill to the excitement of watching a game, than it is for them to be lying in bed with a bellyful of beer inside them playing virtual roulette on their phone.

Let’s continue to protect problem gamblers but not, as seems to be the case, at the risk of making everyone who likes a bet seem socially peculiar because we are not.

World Cup quizzes

Groups A & B

Groups C & D

Groups E & F

Groups G & H

Which World Cup legend are you?

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Ultimately, the ability to run around the pitch blowing a whistle when the VAR tells you to will be the sole qualification for being a referee
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