Giles Smith: VAR – so it was worth the wait!

With words you perhaps never thought you would read from columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith, he comes today to praise the VAR system, not to bury it – and to propose a new and appropriate tribute to its operators…

This part of the website has always been a place where VAR could rely on a strong voice of support against its critics – a place where, even during the inevitable early ‘teething problems’, video review technology could depend on an ally, firmly prepared to defend it as a vital step that could only enhance the game of football in the long run.

That’s except for the columns where I might have described it as an absolute disaster, a passion-killing menace conceived without reference to the pleasure of the paying supporter, the worst two hours anybody spent shopping for knockdown flat-screens in a Currys superstore and a dark stain on humanity that the civilised world would never find it in its heart to forgive.

And that’s except for the column which proposed the formation of a voluntary working-party of supporters to go over to Stockley Park at some convenient time for everybody and help the team there dismantle those screens, return them to their boxes and donate them to needy care homes up and down the country so that we could all move on positively and forget this whole sorry idea ever happened.

But then, after Tuesday night… well, who could deny the beauty of it? Even more, I would suggest, than we could deny the beauty of it last December when it was awarding a last-gasp penalty to Newcastle against Tottenham on the tiniest of technicalities.

Because we need to face cold facts here. And the cold facts are, the naked eye, left to its own devices, would have ruled out Olivier Giroud’s goal against Atletico Madrid – would have unhesitatingly struck it from the record. Indeed, on Tuesday, the naked eye had already done so. The goal would not have stood. And that, we can all agree, in the case of this particular goal, would have been a terrible thing, an act of cultural desecration, like flinging a pot of Dulux at a Vermeer or casually lobbing a brick through a stained glass window.

However, thanks to the wonders of 4K imaging and the manifestly sensible arrangement which is retrospective video scrutiny by a team of independent judges with access to a full panoply of camera angles, the offside flag was overruled, the ball was shown categorically to have been played backwards by a defender and Giroud was therefore onside and perfectly at liberty to launch himself skywards and score the goal of the season, earning straight 10s in all categories, including degree of difficulty, artistic expression and the fact that this was the away leg of a Champions League knock-out tie against the best team in Spain.

And yet here’s the irony. While that actual review process was underway, I may have disliked VAR as much as I have ever disliked it, which is quite a lot. Those minutes seemed to present a textbook example of VAR at its worst - overlong deliberations seemingly dragging on forever while we all drummed our fingers and the game went cold.

During that dull passage of dead time, I saw no reason to amend my opinion that the VAR review is the greatest contribution to low-level despair since the invention of the phone-line hold queue. Death by a thousand luminous lines. If they played Enya while they were doing it, the horror would be complete. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I was thinking, even on Tuesday, ‘just forget it and get on with it.’

Of course, one’s irritation at that point was hardly helped by the fact that television was, for some reason, showing us none of the replays that were being hotly scrutinised in a bunker in Europe. What was going on there? A behind-closed-doors VAR review? Is that a thing?

Anyway, they reached a decision eventually, and then, finally, we were allowed to see why - and what a joy and a privilege it was. The scales entirely fell from your eyes. What a brilliant thing VAR is. Worth its wait-time in gold.

You’d say this about Olivier Giroud: he loves a Champions League night. More than that, he loves a Champions League night in the direct wake of an important government announcement regarding an ongoing global health emergency. Back in December, you will remember, he responded to the official authorisation, that very day, of a vaccine for immediate national distribution by banging in four against Sevilla – a perfect hat-trick capped with a perfect penalty.

Then on Tuesday, a mere day after the UK government released its ‘roadmap’ setting out the hope-raising terms for the country’s gradual release from lockdown – and even raising the possibility of crowds at football in May – Giroud took to the skies to enhance our chances of still being in a position to play meaningful football in that month.

So, thank you VAR. We always thought you were a good idea, apart from all those times when we didn’t. If we must have a video review system, let it be for moments like this – moments when Olivier Giroud is bending over backwards in the penalty area to please us. Okay, at this stage I have no idea how we’ll ever get to pick and choose. But surely a world that’s clever enough to invent VAR is also a world that is clever enough to work out when to use it.

And here’s an idea: what about we all go out to the front of our houses tonight and every Thursday for the foreseeable future at, say, 8.00pm, and clap for VAR workers? Bring a pot to bang, maybe. Why not? Throughout this pandemic (or pretty much – certainly since last summer), these mostly nameless heroes have dutifully and fearlessly defied a threatening virus and the cruel words of heartless critics and cowardly laptop jockeys and reported for work on the frontline. And (we really can’t deny it now) they have delivered.

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