December 2019, Norwich, England.
Floodlit winter brilliance. Scintillating figures with dragon breath, some in yellow, some in blue. Norwich City is playing Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Teemu Pukki, Norwich’s fiercely scurrying Finnish striker, receives—or magnetically attracts—a long, searching ball from Mario Vrančić onto his chest; angles it into his own path; and then, slicing between two Tottenham defenders, zeroes it past the scrambling goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Beautiful. The goal-scorer wheels away in triumph, the home crowd goes nuts, shazam—a lightning ripple of sport-induced gladness zips around the world.
But wait, hang on … Oh, Christ. VAR. The Video Assistant Referee system, reviled innovation of the current Premier League season, is “checking” the goal. One hundred fifty miles away, in London, footage is being reviewed. We’re in limbo. A vacuum occupies the broadcast booth; the crowd shifts, grumbles, in a haze of spoiling endorphins. Then, on the big screen, there it is: goal disallowed. A haggard roar goes up. It has been determined that Pukki, at the moment that Vrančić sent the ball his way, was microscopically—with perhaps the outer edge of his shoulder—ahead of the deepest-lying Spurs defender. In other words, he was offside. The referee didn’t see it; the linesmen didn’t see it; the crowd didn’t see it; the Tottenham players didn’t see it. Nobody saw it. But the faceless invigilators of VAR, in their multiscreen hive—they saw it. Sorry, Pukki. Sorry, universe. Wind back the spool of joy. No goal.