Don’t let VAR controversy overshadow Victory’s grand final win
First let's get one thing straight.
Melbourne Victory's A-League grand final win is neither tarnished nor compromised by the technical glitch that, at the most vital moment, rendered the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system as useless as a linesman with an invisible flag.
As Victory fans are entitled to remind us, referees were perfectly capable of making incorrect game-defining decisions by themselves before technology was imposed upon them.
Thus countless trophies have been won and lost in games where human errors rather than computer malfunctions led to a goal being wrongly awarded or overruled.
In this case what the FFA acknowledged was a "technical failure in the VAR system" meant the referee and his assistant's mistake in neglecting to call off-side was not detected until it was too late to make amends.
So a human error was made, as has been the case since they put the pea in whistles, and the machine was unavailable to correct it.
Yet, inevitably, disgruntled Jets fans feel cheated by VAR alone because the imposition of refereeing technology has created the myth of decision-making infallibility.
This is not to excuse the breakdown of the VAR technology, which seemed symbolic of a cursed A-League season. (Let's face it, had Perth Glory signed Lionel Messi he would have suffered a season ending injury walking onto the pitch for the first game).
It was completely unacceptable that a few minutes after the VAR capture software failed to display evidence three Victory players were off-side, television viewers could see for themselves — over and over — that the goal should have been denied.
But these useless — for Jets fans, infuriating — VAR images did not just condemn the failed machinery. They explained why sport is now either captive to, or enhanced by, replay technology depending on your view.
Those who call for the abolition of the various review systems after a dodgy LBW or a borderline NRL Bunker decision — and now the horrendous VAR meltdown — conveniently forget that television replays were once used to second guess and denigrate on-field officials.
Had there been no VAR, functioning or otherwise, a slightly less conclusive replay of the Victory players standing off-side would have been shown over and over, and the Jets fans would have been just as outraged.
In this case, however, their anger would be with the referee and not the box of wires and circuits that might have cost them the championship.
In the face of this bombardment we relented to replays that told us what was perfectly obvious — officials seeing things in real time from sometimes awkward angles and with a split second to decide sometimes make mistakes.
Technology just as flawed as the humans who use it
What we have failed to understand, or acknowledge, is that decision-making machinery is only as good as the sometimes misfiring software and error-prone humans who use it.
Just ask the Sydney Swans fans, who were the left bemused by the AFL's ludicrously inexact score review system on Saturday night when North Melbourne was awarded a goal that appeared to have been touched.
That Sydney lost the game by less than a goal only made the decision more galling, the minor consolation being that, unlike the Victory goal, this one was analysed by the official review system.
The NRL Bunker is subject to reflexive condemnation, most recently after the controversial try awarded last week – incorrectly, the NRL conceded – to St George-Illawarra's Nene Macdonald in a tight win over the Roosters.
As much as the decision making itself, the spectacle of NRL Bunker officials scanning video to see if they can make the correct call only emphasises the fallibility of the process. Yet this human element is ignored by the serial malcontents who mistakenly equate technology with 100 per cent accuracy.
The A-League grand final VAR meltdown is, of course, a step beyond the usual review system controversy.
If technology is employed we should reasonably expect that it is plugged in and working, regardless of the decisions it spits out.
Especially so if you believe that officials have become more hesitant to make close calls knowing they can rely on technology to correct their non-decisions.
As you wonder if a cricket umpire was hesitant to give a batsman out knowing the fielding team can review, you might also wonder if the referees in the A-League grand final would have blown off-side if they did not mistakenly believe the VAR would cover their tracks.
Again, however, this only exposes the naive belief that technology is capable of accurately assessing every close call rather than merely improving the percentage of correct decisions, which it has done in most sports where it is employed.
Modern sport prides itself on being on the cutting edge of scientific technology. Yet, in its reliance on decision-making technology, it appears to be in the thrall of science fiction and that perennial storyline where machines replace humans.
As dejected Jets fans can tell you, a machine's ability to provide its game-defining data at the right moment is as vital, and as fallible, as the data it provides.