Football fandom is a very personal thing.
People have different ways of supporting their teams – they might be a fanatic who attends every match home and away, they might support from afar, even from abroad, they might go to a few games a year, they might just watch from the sofa.
People have different ways of following their teams, through social media, podcasts, club websites, or local papers. They have different loves, hates, superstitions, foibles. Some people like downing eight pints before a match and singing for 90 minutes, some might prefer sitting quietly and taking it all in.
For some, it is all about being with friends and family, it might purely be a social event, it might be the routines that you love, like meeting your mate Rich for a couple of pints in the Royal London on a Saturday lunchtime, heading down to the ground and getting a Mr Tikka naan kebab with mint sauce from outside the subway, then having a chat and a giggle before kick off with the two sweet old ladies whose season tickets are next to yours and gratefully taking a swig of their warm brandy-tinged flask of tea at half-time on a freezing winter’s day.
We all differ – and that’s before even starting on football tribalism – but surely we can all unite in agreeing that the best thing about football is celebrating a goal. Or at the very least we can acknowledge it is the best feeling/emotion associated with football.
It induces elation, it makes you hug strangers, it can cause you to completely lose control of your senses. Personally, it has caused me injuries and elicited tears. Alex Rae at the Madejski, May 2003. I wept.
But now it’s all changed.
To have those emotions at worst taken away, at best deeply sullied, by VAR is probably the biggest tragedy of the game as we know it in 2023. This also goes for players, for managers, for staff. Celebrations as we know them are mostly gone. Joy has been removed. Nice one, football.
And then there’s Fulham v Wolves on Monday night.
At The Athletic, we are all football fans, but in our capacity as journalists often attending games, working on stories or recording podcasts, many of us rarely get to watch the team we support in person.
For me personally – and please excuse the naval gazing – Wolves are my team, but in the past eight or so years I have only attended one match as a fan (a forgettable defeat at Selhurst Park last season) due to, well, reporting on Wolves for many years, or now Tottenham Hotspur, and with weekends generally being taken up by work.
So Monday night was a very different experience from the ones I used to have for a couple of decades up to 2015 when I swapped my season ticket for the press box. And that is primarily because the evening was dominated by VAR.
This involved the now customary delays for VAR checks (if you did not see the match, there were three penalties which took up the bulk of 16 minutes of stoppage time over the two halves), which were too long and too devoid of information for people in the stadium. But – and this was no surprise given the freakish run of misfortune Wolves have suffered this season – the bulk of the evening for what seemed like a sizeable proportion of Wolves fans was dominated by the discourse of refereeing decisions.
In the away end, they were on the referee from the word go. They chanted anti-VAR songs, they repeatedly sang that they thought the Premier League was corrupt, they peered on each other’s phones for replays of contentious decisions, they checked social media to see if the right calls had been made, they got so angry with the award of a stoppage-time penalty for Fulham that some left in disgust before it had even been taken.
Is this what being a fan should be about? Thousands of people giving up their Monday nights to travel 140 miles down from the Midlands to watch what was actually an entertaining game of football and leaving talking about refereeing decisions?
Wolves – and the current strength of feeling from an increasing sense of injustice over a period of several months now – are an extreme example, but the delays are interminable and the matchday experience is undoubtedly far worse, no matter who you support.
We see examples of the essence of being a fan being lost every single weekend in the Premier League. And it is not coming back. When the guy running FIFA thinks VAR goal delays are a good thing that fans enjoy, the battle is already lost.
Gianni Infantino said in 2021: “Now if there is a doubt, you check, you wait, you see and that’s the adrenaline that makes football how it is: the waiting for a result.”
Sorry, Gianni, but with the greatest of respect, that is utter shite.
The best thing about being a football fan has been taken away. Those moments of spontaneous ecstasy still happen – a long-range thunderbolt or a free kick where the chances of an issue with the goal are minuscule, for example – but basically anything involving a through ball, a cross, a header where two opponents and/or the keeper are challenging for the aerial ball, anything which results from a contentious tackle in the build-up, or even a deflected shot, doubt lingers as the ball hits the back of the net.
The pitch of most goal celebrations is lower than it used to be, either in the stadium or on TV.
Instead, you might get a muted cheer for a goal, a half-hearted celebration from the goalscorer. And if the goal stands after a VAR check, yep, another muted cheer. Great. The moment hasn’t just gone, it never existed in the first place.
Not only do the governing bodies have no intention of ditching or scaling back VAR, IFAB are discussing extending it to free kicks, yellow cards and corners.
A three-minute stoppage to judge whether Jay Rodriguez or Tomas Soucek got the last touch before the ball went out for a Burnley corner against West Ham. I’m not sure that is what the game is crying out for, to be honest.
The current system is so muddled that suggestions for how to improve it are not plentiful. Scrapping the whole thing – or stripping it back and just judging the only non-questionable invariable, i.e. offsides – does not seem to be an option.
One simple improvement is communication.
We saw a version of this in the Women’s World Cup, where the result of a decision was explained via microphone by the referee. If officials had enough confidence and common sense in their decision-making to explain what they were checking and why – and then summed up what the decision was and showed more replays on big screens – then at the very least fans would feel involved instead of marginalised and ignored. This change needs to come via FIFA, although to be honest the Premier League does not feel ready for such openness and transparency yet. To pull back the curtain right now may only enrage further.
This is not an original rant, you have felt, heard and read all these things before.
But after four years of VAR in the Premier League, with us all talking and complaining about it perhaps more than ever, you have to question: is it really worth it?
Yes, the worst kind of on-field errors by officials are now (mostly) wiped out, but when mistakes are still so plentiful and while officials are being held to a higher standard than ever before – perhaps an impossibly high standard now they have all the technology they need at their disposal – the argument for VAR only seems to get weaker. What you lose from having VAR does not seem worth what you gain from having it.
It feels like there has been a narrative shift this season in terms of unhappiness with how this is being implemented. There was perhaps leeway in the early days of VAR in the hope/expectation that the system would improve, the decision-making would sharpen, the delays would shorten. But none of those things are happening – processes are not being ironed out, mistakes are still happening and, after four years, there is no end in sight to the confusion and the anger.
Frankly, it is boring talking about it.
Football fandom will never be the same again. The sport is poorer and so much less enjoyable for it.
(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)