Muscle memory is the bedrock of modern soccer. As a global family, we’ve been playing the game now in some form for centuries, and in our current iteration the oldest fully professional side is more than 150 years old. With so much time elapsed, gently tottering off under the bridge of time for decades and decades, the game’s flag standard is firmly planted in the ground, more or less unmoving.
At least in terms of FIFA rules, which the vast majority of the world recognizes in its leagues stretching down to the elite youth level, understanding the importance of muscle memory in this is to understand the game itself. Soccer is largely soccer because both collectives and individuals can click into a sort of athletic autopilot, allowing the game’s flow to dictate their fluid decisions on an almost subconscious intellectual level.
The general lack of stoppages over time makes soccer’s flow sacrosanct. It is the game’s grail, an unimpeachable facet of the game so critical that its entire being spins on its axis. If you think about every major FIFA policy decision made in the last 50 years with any bearing on the on-field product, it’s largely been made to keep a game’s flow largely uninterrupted. Unlike other sports, soccer’s lifeblood literally depends on it.
This is why, I think, VAR (video assisted replay) has and will continue to run up against such vehement dissention internationally. If the idea is pure, then the implementation has been typically human; broken, imperfect and hotly contested. VAR’s been used before in professional matches, notably at USL games, but this month’s Confederations Cup in Russia presents FIFA with its loudest test case yet. With (at least part of) the world watching, FIFA dropped VAR, with its sequestered referees bizarrely dressed in full ref garb chained to seats in front of monitors in a bunker somewhere at the earth’s core, into the equation.
The results, as you would expect in the initiative’s major international debut, have been mixed. There was some question whether the VAR refs got an offside call wrong on Arturo Vidal in Chile’s 2-0 win over Cameroon. And on Monday, VAR appeared to correctly affirm an Australia goal to make it 3-2 against Germany but seemed to miss a handball captured on the same play. Fittingly, even replay wasn’t enough to immediately settle these disputes.
VAR is good. Or at least it will be good. But the adjustment will be significant.
It would seem to me the biggest – and really only – argument against VAR at present is latent interruption of the flow of the match. Soccer is already cut through with play stoppages, but the argument is that they’re natural: injuries, time spent lingering over an inert ball setting up a free kick, the space between substitutions. These are all more or less manmade breaks in play, embedded in the fabric of the game itself.
What this does – the expectation that each of these things can and will happen every game - is remove these moments as potential mental hurdles, or unnatural gates that disallow the game’s smooth, fluid movement from one passage to the next. If we admit to one another that soccer’s unique balance is in the flow of the match itself, and that to introduce blockages of that flow is to break it apart, then any element introduced at this stage of the game’s development is liable to break all that apart.
The worry is in the dead space between actions, which the game’s natural course seeks to eliminate like an immune system going after a recently introduced virus. If a lengthy injury stoppage is an understood break, which means the churning mental engine of each team is hardly interrupted at all, then VAR is a jarring douse of cold water.
At least for the moment, each time the referee makes that square symbol following a goal to throw the impetus to the review cabin, the game clenches and waits. It’s unnatural, and you can practically see the game’s flow disintegrate before being built back up from the ground level in the moments afterward.
It isn’t that stoppages in soccer are rare, or even all that disruptive. It’s that unexpected or misunderstood stoppages deaden the ball and force collective mental resets. If you know a certain thing is possible, and have dealt with it since you were young, then the resulting reaction is a sort of muscle memory. At the moment, no player or coach really understands what to do in that moment while the booth reviews the goal. It’s an agonizing, awkward wait. In less than a minute, an entire game jerks in one direction or the other by either confirmation or refutation. It introduces a new mental element into the equation, a constant nagging knowing that at any time a small collection of referees you can’t even see can alter the scoreline.
This requires some degree of metal juggling, and it isn’t insignificant. But the broader point to make here is that if this system is made into a deeply efficient machine capable of working at a whirring pace, then it’ll become another small stoppage in line, both mentally and physically, with every other small moment in the course of a match. Here’s Vidal himself on that mental hitch after his goal was ruled offside.
“It’s a bit strange to wait for the camera, but we have to get used to it, it’s something that will help improve football.” (adnradio.cl)
The most recent example, VAR’s brief appearance in Australia-Germany, was an improvement in terms of time between the announcement and the call. It took 17 seconds between the time Mark Geiger stopped the transition from goal to kickoff and when the call was funneled down to his earpiece that Australia had indeed scored. That’s better than the Vidal call, but it’s still too long. FIFA says it wants six seconds, which is probably impossible, but anything under 10 and the call will hardly register in the run of play.
It’ll obviously stop trailing teams from picking out the ball and sprinting back to the center circle for a quick-blast restart, but for the most part – and this is the ideal – it might add a few seconds, tops, to a game. And much of that was in the time teams already spent jogging back to reset the game on a kickoff after a goal in the first place.
This is all so important because VAR’s grand club experiment is about to be visited upon MLS on a permanent basis. The league is cranking up its VAR apparatus after the All-Star Break in August, and whether it’s ready or not is up for some debate.
The true value in VAR, if it ultimately finds its way into the generalized muscle memory of a match, will ultimately be found in two things: make it fast and make it accurate. If VAR can check both of those boxes, it’ll be as native a break to the flow of the match as a substitution.