Where are you, football? Why money and VAR threaten Premier League's 'most entertaining' status
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Where are you football? I feel like the little girl, Cindy Loo, who, in the original Grinch movie, walks around her bedroom singing about how Christmas has changed, and how it doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore. Me? I’m putting fingers to a keyboard instead of engaging my vocal chords, and the topic is football not Christmas, but the sentiment remains.
Football has changed, and not for the better. This isn’t an old-timer rant about the ‘good old days’. For full disclosure, I’m 27 years of age, and my ‘good old days’ of football took place between 2004 and 2014. I can only imagine what those who are senior to me feel about the modern game, given my feelings towards the sport at a still relatively youthful age.
I fell in love with football for its pace. It was action-packed, unforgiving and brutal to fans who pay their money to see it. I travelled great distances and paid far too much money to get my heart broken by a last-minute goal at Rotherham and the likes, more than 200 miles from home. I would question my loyalty in the car or on the bus home, then I’d be back on the road the following week, ready and excited for the next twist or turn.
The game changed along the way. The hard-nosed footballers, the Graham Kavanaghs of the world retired, and we saw more continental influence. It brought more skill, more technicality, but English football paid the price in terms of physicality, and the game quickly shifted. I didn’t mind. I always appreciated excellence in any field, and skill defeating brute force was never going to be a bad thing for football.
Then came the diving. I’m not sure of an exact year, but diving became a big problem in football, eventually leading to yellow cards for simulation. It was problematic in that it was fundamentally cheating, but I admit to defending the sport from critics during that time despite feeling all cheating should be punished firmly. ‘You can’t beat a cheater’ was the mantra I grew up with.
Football seemed to get a hold of the diving problem, but everything would later change when VAR arrived. Before that point, money truly arrived in football despite having an earlier presence in the sport through the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. Like in society, there has always been haves and have-nots in football, and money plays a vital part in the level of success at any club, even at legacy clubs like Manchester United.
Money truly arrived with the Manchester City regime in late 2008. We didn’t know it then, not even with that Robinho transfer, but the purchase of City would change English football, and perhaps forever. It raised the financial stakes, and we now have billionaires at most clubs, be it Aston Villa or Bournemouth, Ipswich Town or Leeds United. Not that the billionaires are a problem, it was a natural progression path after all for a growing sport, but we now have actual states owning football clubs, be it at Man City, with Saudi Arabia at Newcastle United, or further afield with PSG and others.
Success and profit are the only requisites, and you can even buy a club amid allegations of human rights breaches. What’s more, your sportswashing mission will be supported by all because many local journalists follow the club themselves and believe the club deserves success more than they believe people should be held accountable for their actions. A sweet deal for prospective owners.
The Premier League itself is not harmed by the presence of such owners, but if you are a fan of a Championship club, don’t wish for promotion. Don’t swap the belief you have that your team can win any game for a pointless away trip to Manchester City or Arsenal. But knowing your team is not going to win is the least of your problems for a Premier League fan of a non-top ten club, and this applies for all of the top leagues in Europe.
We can debate where VAR gets things right or wrong until the cows trot through the front door lay their weary heads on a pillow, but as usual, the fans are the last to get consideration in this whole debate. Clubs will feel sorry for themselves, put out statements to make it clear they have been cheated, and the billionaires can throw a glass or two at the thought of missing out on an extra £10million in prize money because of a poorly made decision.
What’s more concerning is how the experience has changed for football fans who watch games with VAR. Just a few years ago, we had the fad of ‘limbs’. That referred to football fans going ballistic when their team scored. While some may have exaggerated the symptoms, as a football fan, you just couldn’t hate the sight of hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of football fans expressing pure joy at a dramatic equaliser or winner. What a sight.
That culture barely exists anymore. Any match-going fan, or even any fan who traditionally loses their marbles when their team scores while watching on TV at home or in the pub, now faces the reality of not celebrating most goals properly. They pay hundreds or more for their ticket or TV subscription to cautiously take to their feet for the vast majority of goals, waiting to see whether the goal will actually be given or not. Then, if it is given, they celebrate the goal to a much lesser level. It’s not their fault. No one wants to go crazy just to be told the goal doesn’t count.
I used to go crazy when my team scored, it was the best thing about watching football. Now it’s like watching the pizza guy arrive. They pull up on their bike a little down the street, I stand up in cautious hope, then I give an enthusiastic fist pump when I realise they are indeed coming to my door. It is my pizza, it is indeed a goal.
What has football become? What has VAR done to it? Reduced atmospheres at increased prices. Fast-flowing no more, with pauses at every turn while decisions are checked. Brutally honest? Hardly. Wrong decisions are now simply debated longer, becoming even bigger scandals than the honest mistakes referees used to make. We no longer talk about the wild celebration of goals as fans, how we tumbled over each other. Now it’s about the controversy of officials.
Though, let’s not forget that this isn’t how life is for many fans below the Premier League. The Championship still hasn’t got VAR, at least not yet. League One, League Two and below may never have the technology, and fans should wish that is the case. My message to those fans? Make those long trips, bask in the true celebration of every goal, and embrace every refereeing mistake that comes as part of your journey as a supporter. You’ll miss all that if your team is ever successful enough to play in a league ruined by VAR and money.
As for me, walking around my bedroom singing ‘where are you football?’ I’m not sure where to go from here. These days I have a season ticket for a Spanish club who play in La Liga, where VAR is as boring as it is in the Premier League. Other sports suddenly feel far more attractive, far more entertaining, and I know I’m not the only one.
It’s impossible to leave football behind, but the sport is on pace to implode, at least for anyone who remembers what it was like even just 10 years or so ago. Those who run the sport are not truly interested in fans - they never have been - but it feels as though, unless supporters start claiming some sort of control over governance as a collective, the true values of the sport we all fell in love with may just wash away like the January snow after a rainy day.