The fight to ensure fairness in football is doomed to failure, but more importantly, it would risk ruining the sport.
Football isn’t fair. It never has been and in a way it never will be. A team can dominate a match for 89 minutes and still lose. We’ve seen it happen so many times, including in Cup Finals. Everyone is clamouring to find new ways to make the game fair, to create an even playing field where everyone is guaranteed an even chance of success, but that is impossible. More than that, it ought to be impossible.
If everyone started on the same level, there’d be no fairy-tales. There’d be no Leicester City winning the Premier League. The tragic death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash just outside the stadium where he celebrated that astonishing sporting achievement just over two years ago is further proof that life, and sport, just isn’t fair. It is unpredictable, in good ways and bad. We simply have to relish every moment and accept just how little control we have over any of it.
Nothing gives you stronger emotions than sport. Nothing. Seeing your team beat the odds, having gone years with so little to celebrate and then winning when completely unexpected: you can’t beat that sensation. There are Manchester United fans whose dying thoughts as their lives flash before their eyes will include the comeback to win the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich.
Financial Fair Play is a sham, but then we always knew that. There is far too much money in the sport to balance that out and accountants far too skilled to let genuine rules be imposed anyway. Again, though, complete equality would ruin the sport. Some clubs exist by developing young talents and then selling them on at vastly inflated prices. This is a system everyone benefits from and that’s how it should be.
What UEFA and the sport absolutely must avoid is the creation of the so-called Super League. Leaked documents show plans to invite big clubs – or at least ones who were big – to remain in this top flight with no chance of relegation for a decade. There is no success without the danger of potential failure. Football is not a sport that lends itself to the status of an exhibition match, because you can’t make a game entertaining without there being anything at stake. It generates emotions because it feels important to the fans and the players.
There is one area where fairness can be provided, or at the very least approached, and that is with the introduction of VAR. The Video Assistant Referee system has crept its way into the sport in dribs and drabs, making those left behind look positively antique in comparison. Soon we’ll view those days before VAR with the same befuddled disbelief that there was a world before the Internet and mobile phones. Some of us are feeling that way already, seeing Manchester United secure passage to the Champions League Round of 16 thanks to a goal with an evident Marouane Fellaini handball offence. UEFA have listened, learned and agreed to start using the technology from the knockouts this season, although the Europa League remains out in the cold, like the only person you know without an iPhone.
Yet VAR is no guarantee of fairness at all. Yes, it is ideal for objective situations like offside and whether an incident was inside or outside the box, but when it comes to fouls in the penalty area, it remains what it always was: a human being making a subjective decision. In case anyone wanted confirmation of just how brittle the sense of justice is around this technology, Piero Ceccarini stepped up with the ultimate example.
Questions were asked in the Italian Parliament after the coming together between Juventus defender Mark Iuliano and Inter striker Ronaldo in that infamous 1998 Serie A match. Nerazzurri Coach Gigi Simoni said ‘history would have changed’ if VAR had been in place at the time. Ceccarini decided to prove him wrong by assuring even having seen the incident again on a slow-motion replay, and still 20 years later, he would not have awarded a penalty, insisting Ronaldo ran into Iuliano. When it comes to sport, justice is in the eye of the beholder.