In the English-speaking football world, there are few better means to share your deepest frustrations than those two-and-a-bit words. Defending, diving, transfer fees, haircuts – there is not a pet peeve in the modern game that can escape that withering proclamation, even if nobody knows how far away ‘gone’ really is.
Still, nothing triggers the ‘game’s gone’ gag reflex quite like VAR. That may prove to be the system’s defining contribution: the rallying point for fans and professionals determined to bring football ‘back’ from this sanitised circus, where the clowns clean up the stalls mid-show while the ringmaster reminds the kids to keep fun to a minimum.
By half-time of Sunday’s Premier League game between Tottenham and Manchester United, “game’s gone” was cried, broadcast and tweeted with the gusto and impact you might expect. It wasn’t really necessary, of course. We know the game is ‘gone’. VAR has been pushing it ‘gone’ for months. It’s a long, long way ‘gone’. In fact, since it’s practically a sitcom anyway: the game is so far gone that you can’t even see the game. The game is a dot to you!
Edinson Cavani presumably felt like that. The Manchester United striker, already weighing up whether another season in England is worthwhile, saw his first league goal since February 6 disallowed for a foul by Scott McTominay on Son Heung-min in the build-up. Son tried and failed to grab McTominay’s shirt, and the United midfielder caught him in the face with a flailing finger. Several replays in Stockley Park and on the sideline at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium convinced referee Chris Kavanagh that the contact was severe enough to merit disallowing the goal, but not to show McTominay what would have been a second yellow card. Five minutes later, Son made it 1-0 to the home side.
Predictable incandescence followed. “I’m amazed, really. If this is a foul, we should all go home. It’s really bizarre,” said former United captain Roy Keane on Sky Sports. Ex-Manchester City defender Micah Richards said football was beyond recognition, adding: “It’s embarrassing. This is not football anymore. I know we have a laugh and joke, but it’s spoiling our game.”
Perhaps Jose Mourinho said it best: “I don’t understand anything anymore.” As for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ever the populist: “The game is absolutely gone.”
Rio Ferdinand added his fury to the frothing vitriol of social media. “Scrap VAR… an absolute shambles! The fella at Burnley volleyed Longstaff in the face earlier and wasn’t a foul… now this! My tv is moments away from being on the patio in 100 pieces,” the former United centre-back tweeted.
Ferdinand was comparing the Son incident to one in Newcastle United’s earlier win at Burnley, when James Tarkowski was not penalised by VAR for kicking Sean Longstaff in the face while trying to clear from his own box. The message seemed to be that McTominay’s errant pinkie was the more egregious, “unnatural” movement. The half-and-half screenshot memes bellowed their disapproval.
The point of retelling this story, at the end of a gripping game where United once more fought back to win away from home, is that that is what VAR is: the story. Everything else in football matches is a subplot. Spectators, who are still confined to watching at home, tune in expecting not the first goal, but the first visit to the pitchside monitor. ‘The game’ is played out on TV screens, in houses and stadia alike.
So what that Cavani recovered to force Fred’s equaliser and then put United ahead? Who cares that Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba, lightning rods for Mourinho jibes in his United days, were standout performers? What does it matter that Spurs are now six points behind the top four and United are getting closer to Manchester City? The game’s all the way over there!