Thursday, June 20, 2019

What Are the Rules of Soccer?

David Pozen

VAR is ruining soccer.

I wrote a post last summer, after the end of the World Cup, arguing that the introduction of Video Assistant Referees had led to a more mechanical and mindless style of refereeing. One manifestation was the dramatic spike in the number of penalty kicks awarded. VAR robbed referees of the discretion to make some of the context-sensitive judgments on which the game had always relied.

Since that post was published, things only seem to have gotten worse. VAR-induced delays at this summer’s Copa América and Women’s World Cup have unsettled the rhythm of both competitions. A sport with no timeouts or commercial breaks now finds itself repeatedly interrupted by VAR reviews. (I am waiting for these interruptions to become sites of advertising as well as tedium. “This VAR review is sponsored by Panoptico, serving all your mass surveillance needs.”) Worse still, the outcomes of multiple matches have been swung by VAR determinations that a goalkeeper left her line early during a penalty kick, allowing the shooter a second chance after an initial miss. Scotland is heading home from the World Cup after such a call was made last night.

VAR’s supporters insist that “rules are rules,” and these goalkeepers violated the rules. The official laws of soccer currently state (on p. 121) that when a penalty kick is taken, the goalkeeper “must have at least part of one foot touching, or in line with, the goal line.” VAR seemed to show that the Scottish goalkeeper Lee Alexander had both feet off the line when the Argentinian midfielder Florencia Bonsegundo struck the ball. Alexander was therefore in breach. Case closed.

Legal realism, however, suggests an alternative perspective. In Karl Llewellyn’s classic formulation, there are “paper rules” and “real rules.” The paper rules are written down in authoritative law books. The real rules, as Frederick Schauer puts it, “are the ones actually applied by real officials in real institutional settings.” While we may have cause to worry about especially large or arbitrary gaps between the paper rules and real rules, the two pervasively come apart to some degree.

Schauer gives the example of a highway speed limit. In many jurisdictions, the official speed limit—the paper rule—is 65 miles per hour. All the signs and statutes indicate as much. But the real rule is often 74. Everyone knows that they won’t receive a speeding ticket for going 66 miles per hour, even if they might be given a ticket for going 75. Drivers adjust their behavior accordingly.

Soccer’s penalty-kick rules for goalkeepers are similar—or at least, they used to be. Every goalkeeper knew that she couldn’t take a giant step off the goal line well before the ball was booted. But stealing a few inches of ground a fraction of a second early? That was commonplace. Indeed, it was part of the art of good goalkeeping. Perhaps in implicit recognition of the draconian nature of the penalty-kick sanction, the real rules permitted more flexibility than the paper rules. Alexander’s subtle shimmy against Argentina was consistent with the former though not the latter.

Yet now, under VAR, the cops are doling out tickets to drivers going 66. And with multiple cameras trained on every blade of grass, they don’t miss a single infraction. No wonder England’s goalkeeper Karen Bardsley describes the new enforcement regime as a “cruel and pedantic” crackdown that is forcing players to unlearn deeply ingrained habits.

As I noted in my previous post, the president of FIFA Gianni Infantino likes to say that “VAR is not changing football, it is cleaning football.” Llewelyn’s distinction helps show why Infantino’s slogan is misleading. VAR has changed the rules of soccer, the real rules, not to mention the flow and feel of the game.

Is the added “cleanliness” worth it when goalkeepers try to inch off the line? At least when it comes to putting speed cameras on the streets, there may be benefits to public safety and public coffers. Yet most people nevertheless hate speed cameras, for good reasons, and the use of VAR to close the gap between the paper rules and real rules of penalty kicks strikes me as even harder to justify. Simply asserting that “rules are rules” obscures much and resolves little.

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