VAR – Soccer’s New Normal

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed the concept of a “New Normal” was born. Basically, the change was so foundational what once would have been considered a temporary shift, was now in fact, the norm.

With the global* introduction of  the Video Assistant Referee system, or “VAR”, soccer is finding its own New Normal. There have been moments where watching VAR inserted into soccer is akin to trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominate hand.  It’s just weird.

*Global only in the sense there are several leagues across the globe instituting VAR, but not all. 

Predictably, the introduction of VAR has had its fair share of controversy. Even the system’s biggest proponents forewarned this was not going to be a pretty process. Everyone knew this going in, but concerns over how much it would impact how fans watch and players react to the game never seemed to float to the top.  Today we now can see for ourselves – this is going to take some time to get used to.

While you can nit and pick at specific areas, (the system has delivered results from the confusing to the downright silly) many of the biggest ones – if you’re looking at the letter of the Laws of the Game and the introduction of VAR on top of them – turned out correctly.  And while that is kind of the point to all of this, does it have to be so – wonky?

Here are a pair of situations to consider.

Dutch Super Cup – Saturday, August 5, 2017
Feyenoord and Vitesse: Ironically, one of the very first European club games to officially institute VAR contained the exact scenario we’ve pondered over on the radio show (The KickAround, Saturdays 2-4 on the Ticket) for some time. That scenario has always seemed highly unlikely, but here it happened – right off the bat.

A foul in one box is waved off as no penalty, the opponent takes possession, works its way downfield and scores a goal of their own. Here, the result put Feyenoord up 2-0.

But wait! Swooping in is VAR to the rescue. A full two minutes and 25 seconds later – but what feels like the time it would take to play a Cricket match – the Feyenoord goal is revoked because the referee has changed his mind about the PK he waved off, is now awarding it and Vitesse converts to now make the game 1-1.  A lot happened between the penalty in question and the goal, but the ref used VAR to erase all of that and go back to the real error. Confused? Watch the video (although you’re likely to still be confused).

FC Dallas v Colorado – Saturday, August 12, 2017
In one of those steamy mid-August Frisco evenings, the Huntsmen and Rapids clang off each other in a goalless game until the moments just before the halftime whistle, there’s action!  Dallas appears to win a ball deep in their own end, push it forward and on the counter Maxi Urruti converts a sweet right footed strike, leaving Tim Howard stone footed.  Maxi shoots his imaginary arrow into the stands, he’s mobbed by his teammates, fans go bonkers, firewor…. *cue needle scraping a record sfx*

But. Wait. When Dallas won that aforementioned ball deep in their own end it was the byproduct of an Atiba Harris challenge. Harris not only won the tackle, it also spit the ball all the way out, almost to midfield, where it found Christian Colman. A sprint and pass later, Urruti scored. That is the entire “attacking phase of play”, a phrase that is important to understand.

The goal was overturned because VAR rang down to referee’s Allan Kelly’s ear and told him he may want to go back and take a peek at Harris’ challenge. Sure enough, when you watch it again, Harris does clearly commit a foul in winning the ball. It’s pure luck the ball ends up where it did, and then some skill it turned into a goal.

Now, Kelly decides to go view the replay, watches for less than 10 seconds and decisively overrules himself, waves off the goal and gives Colorado a free kick a top the Dallas penalty area. The free kick ends up as a moon shot, therefore avoiding the even worse result of Dallas going down.

Here’s the thing, go back and watch the play again. Kelly is right there at the time of the foul. Maybe 12 yards up field, with a perfect line of sight to make the call. He sees it, sees the ball fly back up field and then he turns and pursues the play.  In pre-VAR soccer, that’s about a clear a shot a ref’s going to get at making a decision.  Kelly, probably PRO’s top guy, gives zero indication he’s waffling about his call.  In referee parlance that is referred to as ‘foul recognition’.  It is soccer’s subjective equivalency to baseball’s strike zone.

It is important to note VAR clearly told us from the beginning that goals and how they are created – the time before the goal called the “attacking phase of play” – could all be taken into consideration in deciding to overturn. That is exactly what happens here. While it covers 80+ yards, maybe 10 seconds and only two passes, this attacking sequence does, in fact, begin with Harris committing a foul to win the ball. By the rules set forth by VAR, Kelly’s decision to wave off the goal, just like the Dutch Super Cup situation, was 100% correct.

Referees are asked to judge what is and isn’t a foul maybe hundreds of times a game. Kelly clearly decides, up close and in real time, Harris’ tackle was not a foul. The very important part of this to absorb is VAR allows Kelly to realize he’d missed in that moment of foul recognition. What soccer is realizing now is just how transformative this change will be to a sport that has thrived for decades on an infinite number of moments of subjective decision making by stacking on top yet another layer of subjective decision making.  Remember, Kelly could have watched that replay and just as easily decided there “wasn’t enough there to call a foul”.  In VAR, the final decision still belongs only to the referee.

So, on that Saturday night, in a less than 60 seconds, the game goes back to donuts, Maxi is upset about his misfired arrow, teammates break from embrace only to see the ref with a finger in his ear and then making a rectangle as if he’s teaching shapes to kindergarteners, fans are confused, fireworks are wasted.

And that, my fellow soccer friends, is our New Normal.

The greatest irony in the above cases is VAR ‘worked’, meanwhile the means to the end were confusing, frustrating and just plain weird to experience.

Go back earlier this summer, to the Confederations Cup, where VAR was used. The number of times a goal was scored, or not, and players, fans, coaches, commentators all froze with confusion over what was going on as officials on the field and in the stands conferred over what would actually end up happening. Goal celebrations quickly went from the spontaneous eruptions of emotion fan except, devolved into quasi-waiting rooms. Was it a goal? Was it not? And then even if it was allowed, the mood was ruined.

We can all agree, the introduction of technology could improve the sport of soccer and has with Goal Line Technology (GLT) as used in the English Premier League. The difference there are the decisions are made by a computer in the ultimate binary way, and you know what happens? The computer instantly decides, signals the referee’s watch and everyone on the field accepts it. Pretty sure you’d struggle to find any protracted complaining about a GLT decision. But with VAR, you’re still stuck with humans, making subjective decisions and that means we’re all going to fuss and debate about them.

There’s a whole other conversation about the great human experiment side of VAR. The idea of asking a human being to be willing to overrule themselves, admit fault, in front of a crowd of thousands or millions. Inversely, does the system actually give the ref a sense of protection to make/not make calls because they know VAR is there? It really is a fascinating personality test on full display.

And lastly, what about ‘Law 18’?  Take into consideration what happened on the same night Urruti’s goal was waved off. Orlando City’s Kaka was given a red card for putting his hands on Aurélien Collin’s face during a somewhat heated moment. The problem was the card was given after the referee watched it happen on a VAR replay and still the failed to recognize what occurred was two friends goofing with each other. Collin even went to the ref to plead Kaka’s case!

We all might find some way, even if it just takes time, to adjust and adapt to the New Normal, but what VAR should never, ever be allowed to do is supersede Law 18.  The unwritten law is taught to referees to understand the previous 17 Laws were written in a manner to allow for the injection of common sense.  It is the variable that allows referees to rule in the grey area that is the spirit of the game.  The Kaka incident would seem to be a perfect opportunity for a referee to realize they’d simply misunderstood and correct themselves, but here VAR was actually used to witness something, repeatedly in slow motion, and still deem it as “violent conduct”.

There’s so much wrong with how this went down, it’s almost impossible to unpack.  Bottom line: VAR not only failed the game here, it embarrassed the game.

Of the three discussed scenarios the last is the one which seems the most correctable oddity.

It is the first two, the revision of how a game transpires and the resulting clunky breaks, which will take a lot of time to adjust.

For better or worse, welcome to soccer’s New Normal.

Now that’s a radio station playlist

What can be perused below is the playlist from KTXT-FM circa 1991*, the once great college station at Texas Tech University in, of all places, Lubbock.  It is 45 pages and more than 1000 songs of the most diverse programmed radio probably ever broadcast.

The letter “J” alone might best demonstrate the pure range the station expressed.  Hard core, folk, rap, alternative, noise, R&B, house and even classic rock all existed on 88.1.  The station could be challenging but if you gave it a chance, it was totally listenable.  Sure, that really odd Jello Biafra thing would pop up, but then it would be followed by something you really loved – Jane’s Addiction, Jesus & Mary Chain, Joe Jackson, Joy Division, Jungle Bros or The Judy’s – and because of it you found that maybe you liked that Jello Biafra more than you first thought.

I used the word “programmed” on purpose.  Most college stations are free-form, play whatever you like formats.  KTXT, at the time, was part of the Mass Comm broadcasting curriculum and was a programmed station – in the vain of a commercial station.  The point was to learn about the radio business and radio programming.  There were classes, but obtaining an air shift was open to any interested student.  It is the reason I chose to go to TTU.  While visiting on a Senior Day I found out I could also work at the station.  My almost 30 year radio career started there in 1987.

Starting in 1988 the station was flipped from a generic Top40 music format to a hybrid of alternative and college music.  At the time because the alternative format had begun popping up as commercial formats (KROQ/LA, KDGE/Dallas) what had been exclusively college music, started to find its way into the mainstream.  Lubbock had no outlet for alternative, or any music that still fell into the college music category but the fact commercial alternative stations were finding success allowed several of us to convince the powers that be a format flip would be popular.

I became the Station Manager in 1989 and hired Dave White – a large, intimidating, scowly-face of a man – to be the music director (think ‘less ambitious Henry Rollins). He alone deserves the credit for not only building this amazingly eclectic list of music, but also being open minded enough to realize that U2, REM, Smiths, Talking Heads and Depheche Modes of the world could work on the same station as one that also played TAD, 808 State, John Gorka and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As concerned as my more mainstream music friends were of my choice of Dave to be Music Director, equally was his pack of friends who all, understandably, thought Dave had sold out to the Anti-Christ.

What resulted was a few years of the best music education I ever got.  Every once in a while I will meet someone who also was at Tech in that time frame and they end up telling me how much the loved the station and how many bands, musicians and genres they learned about because of KTXT.  It really is the highest indirect compliement I could ever get.
DAVE SAYS: 
I remember learning from the music director who came before me that the station operated entirely differently from a typical college radio station, where the DJs got to choose their own music. KTXT was operated as though it were a regular commercial station, in order to give the Communications majors some hands-on experience in a real world setting. The music director’s job was to select every song played. So I knew I wanted to make it was varied as it could possibly be, given the constraints of the music library we had. I made it my personal, not-so-secret mission to figure out a way to destroy the “programmed” idea without interfering with the practical aspects of people working in a training environment.  So I overloaded the playlist to make it *seem* as though people were making random choices from the music library. Each day the big computer would spit out the day’s playlist and I took my pen to it and eliminated songs that were being played too often and added lesser known songs. I also made sure that as much weird variety was taking place as Lubbock TX would allow in 1990. I look at this list now and mostly what I see is the gaps, the places I failed to beef up the presence of a particular worthy band or artist. I remember people yelling at me a lot. Also, I remember doing a lot of yelling myself.
savektxtAt some point after graduation Mass Comm at Tech lost its accreditation and the University decided to remove the station from any curriculum and put it under the general Student Media department.  The station then became the more traditional free-form format and a cost center.  In December 2010, due to budget issues, the station was shut down, almost out of the blue.  There was a futile out-cry, the station was gone and at that moment I divorced myself from Texas Tech.  It returned as an on-line only station and I’m now told it has returned both to its 88.1FM position and back under control of the Mass Comm department.  Still, I will never forgive Tech.

*the 5/8/92 date at the top represents the date this was printed.  this list actually ceased being added to by Dave in ’91

Yes, the station had a playlist of over 1100 songs – which is unheard of today.  If you look at the column on the right listed as ‘Type” that was the category the song fell into and decided the likelihood it would play.  Now, this version of the list was printed in 1992, but Dave informs me it’s actually a list from 1991, so the songs that were heard the most during a 18 hour day (station was on only 6am-midlnight) were the ones listed with “PWR” (Power).  This was probably 30 songs that were recycled through 3-4 hourly slots.  So, in 18 hours  those songs were played about 72 times, meaning they would play about 3x a day, each.  That actually is really low compared to a hits station which would have a similar category, but with fewer songs and more slots per hour.  The other categories NEW/ACT (newer stuff, up and coming) DWN (down, former PWR) and then the “recurrents” (REC1, REC2 REC+) were the library’s depth with various classic hits (Pretenders, Bowie, Big Star) and newer more recent classics of that decade (Smiths, Cure, REM) and then Dave’s amazingly curated list of great music.  So, the odds of hearing any particular song was pretty low, but it added to the amazing randomness and listenability of the station.

other notes:

  • No, I don’t know what the highlighter marks are for, just Dave stuff (DAVE: YEAH I HAVE NO IDEA)
  • We had to convince the student advisor, the late, great Dr Kinghorn, to allow us to play Jane’s Addiction/”Stop” when it debuted because it had the lyric “…god damn radio…”  He was a Mormon, but a reasonable man. (YOU DID ALL THE CONVINCING. I LAID AS LOW AS POSSIBLE.)
  • B——- Surfers, yes, is for “Butthole Surfers” because we we’re not allowed to say “ButtHole” on the air.  We lost that battle with Dr K.  He would have none of that.  (DAVE: EMBARRASSING TO THIS DAY)
  • Because of the old school dot matrix printer, the band 808 State regularly was stated on-air as “Bob State” (ON AIR STAFF MANGLING BAND NAMES, NOT JUST THIS ONE, WAS A SOURCE OF DAILY HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
  • “Sliver” was the first Nirvana song we played. Remains my favorite Nirvana song. (NOT TRUE: WE PLAYED SONGS FROM ‘BLEACH,’ NOTABLY THEIR COVER OF ‘LOVE BUZZ.’ I’M NOT SURE WHY THAT STUFF ISN’T ON THIS LIST)
  • Dave did rap proper service and would put our additions up again any station in this timeframe (THE SHEER AMOUNT OF RACIST REACTION I ENCOUNTERED FOR THIS DECISION STILL BLOWS MY MIND 25 YEARS LATER)
  • There is a lot on this list I don’t remember: “Cringer”? “Field Trip”? “Jax Wobble”? (DUNNO WHAT THIS IS EITHER)
  • Notice for the most part there are few bands listed with “The” because our software would have listed all of those bands who had “The” starting its title as such.  The lone exception is, of course “The The”.
  • I always believed Dave was made miserable his list started with 10,000 Maniacs, so he added “1/2Man, 1/2 Biscuit” to retain his music credibility.(AT THE TIME, 10,000 MANIACS WERE QUITE POPULAR AND, MUCH LIKE WITH THE INCLUSION OF BANDS SUCH AS DEPECHE MODE, I JUST RESIGNED MYSELF TO THE NECESSITY OF PLAYING A LOT OF THEIR STUFF. I KNEW GOING IN THAT MY PERSONAL TASTE IN MUSIC, WHICH CAN BE QUITE EXTREME, WAS NOT GOING TO BE REFLECTED HERE. IT WAS NOT TO BE MY PERSONAL JUKEBOX. I JUST WANTED A STATION WHERE MOTORHEAD AND THE “LE MYSTERE DES VOIX BULGARE” ALBUM COULD CO-EXIST WITH R.E.M.)
  • “Burn & Rob” by Pale Face almost got us in trouble with the University.  We played off its silly theme in some promos and t-shirts and some old dude thought we were actually trying to incite looting.  (again, Dr K was a reasonable Mormon) (DR K DID, IN FACT, DEFEND US QUITE A BIT, AND I’M SURE HE GOT MORE FLAK THAN I EVER DID.)

Dave offer this recollection:  one of my favorite off-campus stories:  I was at Main St Saloon one night and someone introduced me to an employee of Lubbock’s classic rock station. The radio station person was informed that I was KTXT’s music director. The guy, in that West Texas way where you laughingly insult someone to their face to try to alpha them, said, “That’s where y’all play all that bullshit?”  And I said, “Yep. And funny, that’s what we say about y’all, too.”

KTXT 1992 Playlist.compressed

If you’d like to download or view in a better viewer, use this Scribd link.

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The 25K foot free fall

yes, this happened.  not much to tell, the video does the work.

And this happened, right under our noses

Woke up Saturday morning to find out the great Bill Watterson had been drawing, in secret for three days worth of strips, right our collective noses.

Now, I haven’t been reading the comic pages on the regular for some time, but those there are those that do who were suspicious about what exactly was going on inside Pearls Before Swine.  In fact, a rather serious debate was going on as to the legitimacy of the idea that Watterson would play along for something like this.

Anyway, turns out it’s true.  Bill Watterson drew these panels.  They are funny, beautiful and bring back all the good feelings of a Calvin & Hobbs strip.

Enjoy, ’cause after this attention Watterson is likely to scurry back into his hermit hole for another decade.

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