There is one test of a true radical. It is not a quest for revolution in politics, philosophy, art or religion. The challenge lies in the realm of sport. Sport alone is immune to reform. It is enslaved to the past.

Olympic athletes wield the weapons of ancient Athens. The golf club dates from the hundred years war. The size of a football goal was fixed in a Holborn pub in 1863, probably by the reach of the barman. The elegance of cricket is a legacy of the British empire. Gentlemen officers enjoyed a languid five days in which to play a match.

So what hope of the survival of football’s video assisted referee (VAR), now under attack from the English football elite? Reviewing referee decisions by camera playback is normal in sports such as tennis, rugby and cricket. VAR was introduced to football, or soccer as the Americans like to call it, by the radical Dutch in 2016 and for good reason. With goals so hard to score and entire games often turning on a single decision, it seemed only fair to aid accuracy with technology. Most people agreed. Within three years, the Uefa Champions League and World Cup were using VAR, and England’s Premier League did so in 2019.

Cue pandemonium. For many British fans (including myself – an Arsenal man) low-scoring is football’s one serious failing – though the Premier League has just topped an average of three goals a game for the first time ever. There are long periods of tedium. Defence is stronger than attack. Results differing by a single goal are the norm.

To traditionalists this is all to the sport’s credit. A game’s outcome is always uncertain. Suspense is sustained. Scoring is so rare that players and fans create televisual scenes of crazed hysteria when it occurs, not the decorous applause of a cricket boundary or a tennis ace. Add in the drama of faulty refereeing – Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup – and you have sport in all its grotesque eccentricity.

Television has capitalised on football’s formulation of spasmodic hysteria. The BBC’s Match of the Day strips games of their boredom by offering little more than goals followed by outbursts of ecstasy. Sometimes the programme seems to show as much reaction as it does actual play – like Strictly Come Dancing.

VAR has complicated these reactions. It involves delay and often anticlimax. When in the old days a referee was wrong, cameras could zoom in on managers shrieking with joy or hanging their heads in despair. The game was awash with on-field emotions. VAR shifts the emotion off-field. Everyone awaits technology. Who knows when cameras and artificial intelligence will take over from human referees altogether?

This week, Wolverhampton Wanderers duly submitted a proposal to end the Premier League’s five-year-old use of VAR at next month’s league AGM. The debate is awash with fans and players bemoaning VAR’s deadening impact on a match. The great Wayne Rooney declared: “It has taken all the enjoyment out of the game … You have to wait to celebrate.” It is as if the essence of the sport was the act not of scoring, but of reacting.

In truth television has had limited impact on the conservatism of sport. It has forced on cricket the excitement of limited-overs matches and immensely popularised tennis. But all things being equal the status quo rules. America got nowhere with its attempt, at the turn of the century, to widen football’s 24ft goals to increase scoring. Britain may have lost an empire but it rules supreme in sport.

Games are more conservative than any other form of human activity. The reason must be that they require rules, and rules work only if everyone agrees and obeys them. I might long for more goals to be scored in football. I might advocate fewer meaningless penalties and scrums in rugby, more stumps in cricket, fewer silly strokes in swimming or bigger holes in golf, making driving more important than putting. I might believe that such reforms would make them all more enjoyable, to play and to watch.

I have met not a soul who agrees with me. Sport might be awash with gambling, drug-taking, corruption and stupefying wealth. Its rules, fashioned by English private schools and imperial soldiers in the 18th and 19th centuries, remain as when these institutions were rocks of empire. I know of no attempt to fundamentally “decolonise” any area of sport from the template handed down. The cry is just to play up and play the game, the same as ever.

So VAR may yet prove the ultimate test. If the Premier League votes to abolish it – and I don’t think it should – Britain will be out of line with refereeing practice round the world. It is hard to believe the world will follow suit. Is the sun really setting on the “end of empire”?



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