23 June 2017

Nigeria: Football Losing Its Humanity With Video Assistance Referee

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The 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup has introduced to the world the latest talking point in football - the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), a technology that is expected to eliminate dubious goals. The VAR is being tested to varying responses from the public as the Confederations Cup holds in Russia this summer.

There was controversy during the game between Portugal and Mexico as Pepe's goal was disallowed. Chile's Eduardo Vargas also saw a strike cancelled following consultations between the centre referee and his VAR team who reviewed the situation from their monitors. This new process has created an uproar among fans with Twitter exploding in recent days amidst protests from fans who see the technology as holding back the game from 'flowing.' "Video Assisted Rubbish" was one of the headlines by Goal.com. Many fans cannot understand why they have to wait for upwards of two minutes before knowing if the referee has allowed or ruled out a goal.

I was at the game between Germany and Australia in Sochi on Monday and witnessed the VAR phenomenon first hand after Tomi Juric's 56th-minute strike made it 3-2 for the Socceroos. For a moment that seemed to last forever, the stadium paused as we awaited the referee's final decision. With a hand placed on his earpiece in secret service fashion, Mr Mark Geiger finally signified with an invisible drawing of a television box that the goal stood. The pocket of Australian fans inside the stadium celebrated with half-hearted enthusiasm, the ecstasy of the goal having worn off in the waiting.

Speaking about the impact of the VAR so far, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: "We have seen how video assistance has helped referees to make the correct decisions. I am extremely happy with VAR so far. This is a milestone tournament. The VAR tests during this Confederations Cup are also helping us to improve the processes and fine-tune communication. What fans have been waiting for over so many years is finally happening," he said.

VAR is not a new phenomenon in sport because it is regularly used in ice hockey and other major team sport events mainly from the United States. I have watched a few hockey matches here and it always bothers me when the referees go off to watch video replay before accepting a team's goal. Little did I know it would soon come to our beloved football; that otherwise joyful sport that is quickly being swallowed up by technological advancement.

While the intention of FIFA and Mr Infantino is to try to eliminate errors as much as possible, one has to realise that these human failings are some of the best ingredients that have made football such a spectacle. Diego Armando Maradona using his hand to make up for his height against England in 1986, a feat so memorable it would be re-enacted by his doppelganger Lionel Messi, more than three decades later. Thierry Henry infamously lending a hand to help the French qualify for the 2010 World Cup; Frank Lampard striking the crossbar as England were denied a lifeline to assuage their annihilation at the hands of the Germans in South Africa; all these moments are etched in football history and will continue to be talking points. I interviewed a referee following the Henry handball and he told me that, while the referees are not infallible, the beauty of football is the endless conversations that fans have long after the final whistle.

The unpredictability of football is why we love the game. What FIFA is offering us through the VAR and the goal-line technology is a continuously watered-down game whose increasing dependence on technology would ensure the loss of its human edge, the quality that makes it earthy and loved by the rich and poor. The reason why football is popular is because it can be played anywhere with little or no equipment. The more we continue to refine it like parboiled rice, football will lose its flair, flavour and conspiracy theories to become predictably less exciting. It will also increasingly be priced out of the reach of the poorer countries only to be consumed by rich nations who can afford its shiny new technologies.

End of a Journey

In September 2016, I resigned from Goal.com Nigeria, packed my bags and moved to Sochi where I was offered a Vladimir Potanin Foundation scholarship as the first Nigerian to attend the Russian International Olympic University. Every journey has its end and today, Friday, June 23, 2017, I, alongside several others, will receive a Master of Sport Administration (MSA) degree in Social Media/Communication, and set out to impact the corporate world of sport with modern management ideas. It has been a tough journey without my family, familiar food or culture but I have made great local friends. I am happy that I took the chance to make a brighter future for my family and Nigerian sport. I also thank my mentor, Professor Patrick Omo-Osagie and The Guardian management who found my views interesting and offered me this platform. I hope to continue to make you all proud.

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