A sociological experiment has been going on in the world of football, but so far no one seems to have noticed. What’s more, this experiment really has nothing to do with football itself.
In the summer of 2019, new technology was introduced into elite men’s football in England. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) would now help referees make their decisions and eliminate the glaring errors which were becoming an embarrassment in an age of a camera for every angle.
Teething problems had been predicted, but few had anticipated the wail of anguish that would accompany football’s most dramatic change for decades: the problem lay in how this technology was being used, with football’s officials seemingly determined to use their new toy ruthlessly, and at every available opportunity.
Hairline infractions – previously invisible to the naked eye – were now penalised, as a small coterie of officials in a West London office became the dei ex machina of the piece, meting out salvation and damnation to the pitch-bound mortals. “This isn’t football anymore,” sang the terraces, back in the halcyon days of packed grounds.
Yet the fans can hardly argue that they haven’t got what they asked for. The glaring mistakes which used to seem so incongruous in a multi-million pound, 21st century industry are now being eradicated, and the letter of the law is being more accurately adhered to. They forget that the time they now spend raging against the machine was once given over to bemoaning the fallibilities of the human referee.
And this is where even those who don’t really care about football should sit up and take notice. For what’s happening on the pitch is offering us a view of our society as it might be, a society in microcosm, where all laws are enforced all the time. If we’d only pay attention, football is playing out a cautionary tale of what happens when a previously liberal system of law enforcement overnight becomes a draconian regime of rigid interpretation, when Peel’s principle of policing by consent suddenly becomes policing tout court. We wanted the rules enforced, they said, but we didn’t realise that they’d actually be, well, enforced. Common sense, it turns out, actually had rather a lot going for it.
With lockdown laws governing every aspect of our lives, the idea of a VAR nation is chilling. The UK is already one of the most surveilled countries in the world. London has over 600,000 CCTV cameras, the most in any city outside China. Advances in facial recognition technology and the proliferation of digital data is making mass surveillance easier by the day.
Football is giving us the tiniest taste of what it would feel like to live in a society where all rules really are meant to be kept and in which technology allows them to be enforced completely. A people raised on the tacit understanding that freedom comes first, even if it means some rules going unheeded, are now peering down into a version of their society flipped on its head, where law enforcement trumps liberty every time. The football allegory is in many ways more powerful than a film or a novel because the alternative vision is playing out in front of us, with real participants and in real time.
This is why wider society needs to take a long look at what is going on in football. The experiment has not yet run its course, but when it does, we should all consider the outcome. Who will triumph, football’s police or football’s policed?