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Keith Strudler: Soccer vs Machine

If you asked French soccer fans, the star of Monday’s women’s World Cup win over Nigeria was French defender Wendie Renard, who scored the game’s only goal off a penalty kick in the 79th minute. That would be the general perception of the highly partisan crowd from the Cup’s host nation. However, if you ask a Nigerian soccer fan, or perhaps even a neutral observer, they might have a different perspective. They might say the game wasn’t determined by a player, or even a person. Instead, they’d credit VAR, or the Video Assistant Referee system that has taken the event by storm, for better or worse. In Monday’s game, Renard was given a second chance at a direct penalty kick after VAR determined that Nigerian goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie actually moved a foot off the goal line before the shot was taken. That gave Renard a second kick from point blank range, which led to their 1-0 lead and eventual win in round play of the Cup.

That wasn’t only time this tournament France has benefited from the wizardry of video replay. In their earlier 2-1 win over Norway, France also scored off a penalty kick given after – wait for it – VAR replay. So, one could argue that France is 3-0 and advancing to elimination play not simply because of what happened on the field, but also what happened off it. One could also argue they may have gotten special review as the host nation, but I’d leave that conjecture to those more prone to sports conspiracy. Or at least fans of other nations.

To be fair, all of the aforementioned calls were correct. There were fouls in both cases, and Nnandozie did step off the line before the shot. That said, some would argue that goalie calls like that are rarely made, and only when truly egregious. Trying to block a direct penalty kick is really hard. Doing it to the letter of the law is darn near impossible. So even if VAR is correct, it’s hard to say whether the call is truly right. And beyond the semantics of rules vs norms, almost every soccer fan seems disturbed by the sheer influence and volume of VAR replays, making technical a game that’s generally called beautiful.

Of course, that’s the real issue here. Not whether or not officials botched a call against Nigeria, or if France got what they deserved. The question is how technology influences the very human process of playing competitive soccer. Perhaps more than most all other sports, soccer lives in a more fluid, less rigid state. I’m still not entirely sure how penalty time is calculated, and no one really seems to know when the game ends. There’s relative flux in where players throw the ball in, and officials make judgements whether or not to stop play. In other words, it’s not American football, where the line between man and machine feels marginal at best.

So when soccer now confronts its human imperfections, it not only highlights its inherent flaws, but also changes the very nature of the game itself. In the end, soccer fans care more about the game aesthetic than its perfection. I suppose that should comfort all those who enjoy art in a world of increasing science.

But really, what soccer is struggling with is something we’re all struggling with – and will increasingly for the foreseeable future. It’s how do man and machine live together in a potentially automated world. See, if scientists deemed it so, we could likely automate virtually every call in a sporting event. Humans would be replaced with sensors and computers, and pretty much every call would be scientifically correct. In other words, we could put the human refs out of work.

But what soccer, and really every sport is trying to do is use both human judgement and computing technology to make the game better. Which, to be fair, is not sitting well with a whole lot of fans watching the World Cup. Just like it’s not sitting really well with a whole lot of soon to be displaced workers whose jobs will be done by AI and other forms of computing technology. Soccer is trying to figure out how to make man and increasingly smart machine co-exist. We’re all having that same quandary, from manufactures to lawyers to cab drivers. So if you believe that sport is simply a microcosm of the real world, then it’s probably worth following how VAR works out. It may not simply tell the future of officiating or even sport, but perhaps the future of work and humanity itself.

Of course, most French soccer fans wouldn’t care about that right now. If you ask them, the star of Monday’s game was still very human.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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