• Alastair Blair

AI, VAR and football as a computer game?

It's some time since I wrote a blog, or rather wrote one for myself. However, I thought I might keep my hand in by offering my thoughts on the continuing meddling of the football authorities in a game that had been delighting much of humanity for around a century without any significant and/or unnecessary changes. In fact, it's hard to think of many other sport where the rules, as originally formulated, were just about perfect, so while I accept that occasional changes are required, the default position should, in my opinion, be to leave well alone unless there is a very good reason (not just a populist social media agenda) for them to be altered.



I am, of course, talking about VAR. Its introduction is deemed necessary in order that the correct decisions are made and so that referees, being human and therefore fallible, can be helped to get everything right so there is no longer any room for debate.


Leaving on one side the fact that fans LIKE debate and argument, VAR has emphatically not led to a clear up of every decision and incident. To take just one example (of many), the penalty awarded against PSG in their Champions League match against Manchester United was a farce, albeit a farce which, strictly speaking and because of the way the Laws of the Game are currently interpreted, was correct in the eyes of the football authorities. However, the sight of defenders holding their arms behind their backs as a shot fires in, just in case it hits said appendages and they are construed to be in an "unnatural position" or "making the body wider," is ridiculous -and indeed unnatural.


If we are going to be pedantic (and why not) the only unnatural position an arm can be in is when it's detached. Short of defenders hacking off a limb and throwing it at the ball to keep it out of the net, it's hard to imagine what else they can do to keep everything "natural." While I appreciate that some Rangers fans might find satisfactory echoes of the Red Hand of Ulster in such an action, it would be a bit extreme and would upset groundsmen the length and breadth of the country (as they would be the ones having to clean up the blood afterwards).


For most fans, I suspect decisions over handball for penalties come down to whether the action of handling the ball was deliberate and done to gain an advantage, whether helping the defending player to get the ball away from an attacker or, in desperation, a la Suarez in the World Cup, as a blatant attempt to stop a goal. Yes, that means that referees frequently make subjective decisions, but they have been doing so for decades and we have, despite the imperfections of such a system, put up with the results, even when it's painful for our own team.


Ah, yes, but there is so much money involved nowadays, it's important we get the key decisions correct. Well, yes there is an obscene amount of money in the game just now, and it's one of the things that has accelerated the relative deterioration of Scottish football (another blog), but we need to have a debate about just what's important and whether football or money take precedence.


Despite what Steven Gerrard might say publicly, we all know that the bigger, wealthier clubs get the rub of the green (or indeed the rub of the orange for the less open-minded Rangers' fans) more often than the smaller clubs. This is not just my view, it's also the opinion of a Old Firm-supporting Scottish football journalist I know (are there any others I hear you cry!). Therefore, in theory, VAR should redress the balance. It won't for the simple reason that the wealthier clubs have better players and thus attack and score more often than the rest, so the key decisions are, obviously, going to be taken in proportion to a club's attacking prowess more often than not. Yes, a key decision might be reversed. The ludicrous penalty for Celtic against St Johnstone when the ball hit Keith Watson's backside/thigh comes to mind - unless the hapless referee thought Watson was trying to make his arse bigger than the rest of his body, but the fact remains that the more you attack then the more you'll get the key decisions under VAR. And of course, the wealthier teams attack more because they can pay the salaries that better players demand. If I was of a socialist persuasion, I'd say it's all a capitalist conspiracy to do down the little man/club and favour those with the dosh. Or, to put it another way which, based on some extensive study of football history, I know to be true, money does take precedence. My argument is that sometimes we should try and preserve the game's soul rather than give in, as we increasingly tend to these days, to the forces of mammon.


Anyway, on with the argument. VAR, or rather its Scottish equivalent, aka BBC's Sportscene, is now firmly on the agenda. Most journalists want it, because they know that it's not infallible and therefore gives them more to pontificate about. If VAR did solve all disputes, the journalists would be stuffed - a bit like lawyers would be if the law were black and white. If there is no dispute, there is not much to be said/written/discussed, in which case why have journalists. Instead, we have a ludicrous situation every Sunday evening in Scotland, where Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson, two former players, over-analyse penalties, sendings-off and other areas of controversy from the weekend's matches, frequently disagreeing with each other but also with themselves as what is deemed acceptable one week is regarded as "you can just see the contact" the next. Moreover, this is done in super-slo-motion: something the referee has not had access to, and it's often rocked over and back to try and find that minutest of "contact" that means that they (usually Stewart) can deem themselves to be right.


The bigger picture is very important here, and much neglected in the constant replays of whether a penalty should have been awarded or not. The BBC recently reported on a basketball match that was filmed and directed by AI. Fixed cameras were able to track players, the ball and also the game itself, following passes from one player to another and, of course, the scoring of points. Not only was it felt that this might this improve the viewer’s experience, but from a commercial viewpoint the lack of human camera operators will reduce the costs involved, although you can see this not going down well with the broadcast unions…


There is already substantial use of technology in monitoring how and where the players run and interact during various sports. VAR is just another piece of kit. However, as I have argued, we have learned that VAR does not always solve every argument or clear up every dodgy decision. I believe there is a very important debate to be had, not just over how we record and broadcast sport, but also over the extent to which computers are taking over a world that millions love for its unpredictability and capacity to surprise.


Let's not kid ourselves. Because so much money is involved and, as we are constantly told, “we’ll want to get it right,” VAR will be extended into all sorts of other areas not originally envisaged. Just now, it's been sold to us as only applying to key decisions in certain areas, but, to take an obvious example which is not covered at present, suppose a player takes a throw in that was, clearly the other team's? On the face of it no big deal, but remember when Roy Aitken did this in an Old Firm Cup final and a few passes later Joe Miller scored what turned out to the be the winning goal. What is that if not a key decision? But unless we want our major sporting competitions to become nothing more than glorified computer games, some important decisions to limit the use of technology will have to be taken. Otherwise, where does it all end – do England give back the World Cup because it’s demonstrated conclusively that the ball was not over the line in 1966?*


When it comes to the adoption of AI to control the cameras and direct the footage that spectators see, we’ll need to consider whether we are happy to see skilled individuals lose their jobs or alternatively just accept that this is “progress.” With VAR, we need to decide if we just want to enjoy a game or acknowledge that this is a business and therefore the money talks loudest. This is the dilemma that AI is increasingly creating, not just in sport but in many other areas of life and work. And it’s not going away. Just how we engage with AI (and it with us) will be one of the biggest issues of the next decade. But the battle over VAR has been lost, and with it a large part of what makes football unique. In my view, that's terribly sad.


* I know quite a lot of people who would say "yes!"

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