In the early stages of the world cup in 2018 a lot of column inches were taken up by sports journalists discussing the pros and cons of Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR). What interested me was how the focus was exclusively on the immediate effects of VAR on the field of play and how surveillance has seemingly been accepted by the media and large swathes of the public. Of course, this should hardly be surprising given that sports journalists are employed to write about sport and that we live in a world where privacy is an illusion. Unfortunately for football fans, the extension of surveillance to the field of play in real time heralds further bureaucratic and technocratic interference in a simple game that relies on human error as much as it does collective discipline, creativity, intuition and skill for its moments of excitement. With the football season in Europe in full swing, some managers at top clubs in the Premier league have called for the introduction of VAR, aggrieved at errors or perceived mistakes made by referees.
I’m not going to rehash here what has already been said in the media about VAR. I’m concerned with surveillance creep and the subjection of employees (yes, professional footballers are employees, albeit highly privileged ones) to extreme scrutiny that will change their behaviour as people. This is nothing new, but Jeremy Bentham, who in the late 1780s devised the Panopticon, would probably have been astonished and disturbed by today’s invasive technologies. The Panopticon was a prison design based on the principle of central inspection which works on the assumption that people police themselves when they feel that they are always being watched (cue jokes about Neymar not being affected by this in the least as he shamelessly feigns injury and rolls about in the full knowledge that everything he does is filmed and scrutinized). The difference, however, between the Panopticon and VAR, is that the Panopticon largely worked on illusion. Prisoners felt that they were being watched all the time when in fact they weren’t. Prison officers in central observation towers didn’t need to be present or on duty. With VAR it’s very much the case that everything that players do is observed.
While ostensibly VAR is designed to cut out cheating, foul play and time wasting and to correct clear refereeing errors, one possible effect, could be a sterilized game that could ultimately come to be played by dull conformists. The mavericks, renegades and revolutionaries that to a large extent are the true entertainers of the game could be lost because they will either conform to FIFA’s arbitrary bureaucratic pedantry or do something else for a living. Future players akin to Cruyff, Socrates, Paolo Sollier, Maradona, Javier Zanetti and a long list of other variably gifted players (Neymar included), will find it more difficult to emerge because of the constraints on their behaviour. There is a difference between modifying your behaviour because you may be under scrutiny and modifying your behaviour because you know you are. In the latter case, you may be far more restrictive in your daily actions. Even in today’s digital world where we know that everything we do online is potentially monitored and that every click we make sends data with commercial value to mega-corporations involved with state security apparatuses, we still take risks, express ourselves and act relatively freely. In this sense, the internet is Panopticon-like, the difference being that we are not confined to cells and can switch it off. If we knew for certain that we were being watched by an official with access to our webcam, we would probably curtail our online behaviour or turn to other forms of information and entertainment completely. When it comes to football, the players don’t get to decide whether or not to turn VAR off and neither do the fans.
Before VAR, video recordings and TV replays put players under the spotlight, but most of all, the fans in the stands did. If players cheated, it was part of the game and they suffered whatever repercussions came their way from the fans. VAR removes the fans one place further in a game that has already been taken from them by corporate moguls. It is another mechanism that further alienates the fan from the action on the pitch. Was it or wasn’t it a foul? I know! Let an unelected panel of officials hiding behind TV screens rule out any doubt with a clinical decision. Such fun! Who will we boo? The bad guys! The bad guys that are identified by the authorities, that is. VAR is about conformity.
This is all symptomatic of a world heading towards all-pervasive surveillance. Back in 2013, writing in TIME magazine, David von Drehle wrote that
Almost overnight, and with too little reflection, the U.S. and other developed nations have stacked the deck in favor of the watchers. A surveillance society is taking root. Video cameras peer constantly from lamp poles and storefronts. Satellites and drones float hawkeyed through the skies. Smartphones relay a dizzying barrage of information about their owners to sentinel towers dotting cities and punctuating pasture-land. License-plate cameras and fast-pass lanes track the movements of cars, which are themselves keeping a detailed record of their speed and location. Meanwhile, on the information superhighway, every stop by every traveler is noted and stored by Internet service providers like Google, Verizon and Comcast. Retailers scan, remember and analyze each purchase by every consumer. Smart TVs know what we’re watching—soon they will have eyes to watch us watching them—and smart meters know if we’ve turned out the lights.
With the advent of VAR, surveillance corporations have taken a huge step in an overt way that goes beyond anything like CCTV and internet and smartphone surveillance. Football is the most popular sport in the world. If some fans accept VAR, they are arguably consenting to the hegemony of the corporations that develop, manufacture, install and operate surveillance technologies in every aspect of their lives. Why? Because football is the lifeblood for a lot of people, an escape from the drudgery of work. For many communities worldwide, for many people, it’s all they have. Football is a kind of sacred touchstone. Fans that accept VAR are consenting to the dehumanisation of the game and can only become further alienated from it (at least when they go to watch their favourite professional team). VAR actually gets to have a physical presence in the stadia, VAR is with you like Big Brother.
Of course, people adapt to and resist changes in their lives that are effectively fait accompli. In many ways the discussions about VAR are adding to the football mix, providing another aspect to the game. A positive consequence of player surveillance in the professional game could be that fans kick up a fuss and organise against it, empowering themselves. It could even lead to more fans gravitating towards non-league clubs or forming their own for the love of the game. For the professional game VAR is a bad, ill-thought out idea instituted by control freaks at FIFA. Let’s hope it fails not least for the main thread of this post. I say let players play and let referees make mistakes. Let’s live and breath the game and not stifle it. Let’s be human.