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Is VAR Ruining Football?

Fifty years ago, Joni Mitchell lamented “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” in her hit single Big Yellow Taxi. She wasn’t wrong, and we have 2020 to thank for proving it to the masses. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell stated:

“I wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise.”

Today the lyrics pertain to much more than paradise and parking lots. They serve to illustrate how we took everything for granted — and I mean everything. Hugging your parents, pints at the pub, play dates at the park, a sit-down coffee at your local Costa, holidays, sport…

A cartoon scene of a controversial incident between two footballers. One is lying on the floor clutching their head and their leg. The other is standing up, receiving a red card from a giant hand in the foreground.

Where football is concerned, however, it’s not only the COVID-19 pandemic that has fans harking back to the “good old days”… y’know, like 2018? Before a little something called VAR descended upon the Premier League and ruined the beautiful game forever. But is that really the case?

The cynic in me says that team allegiances play a huge part. If a VAR decision goes “your way” then it’s the best thing since sliced bread. If it doesn’t? Well then that stupid video assistant referee is toast!

Opinions of VAR may also depend on what viewers value the most: slow and stunted play that is fully in accordance with the rules, or a fast and furious game accepting of human fallibility.

According to FIFA, VAR — which operates under the philosophy of “minimal interference, maximum benefit” — comes into play in four scenarios:

1. Goals:  

The role of the VAR is to assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded. As the ball has crossed the line, play is interrupted so there is no direct impact on the game.

2. Penalty Decisions: 

The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick.

3. Direct Red Card Incidents: 

The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player.

4. Mistaken Identity: 

The referee cautions or sends off the wrong player, or is unsure which player should be sanctioned. The VAR will inform the referee so that the correct player can be disciplined.

The process itself is conducted in three stages. When an incident occurs, the referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends to the referee that a decision/incident should be reviewed. The video footage is reviewed by the VAR, who advises the referee via headset what the video shows. Finally, the referee decides to review the video footage on the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action, or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action.

There are two potential downsides to this process — the extra time required to reach a decision (reviewing footage can take many minutes and detrimentally impacts both the pacing and flow of the game — not to mention the cautious celebrations whilst players await a goal verdict), and the flawed nature of human interpretation.

Take Hawk-Eye in tennis, for example. Whilst not infallible, it has been proven to be accurate to within 3.6mm. As such, officials, players and public alike have embraced the technology, with the latter accompanying each result with an escalating “oooohhhh”. It’s fun, it adds to the sense of drama and it doesn’t require umpire interpretation. What’s more, the players themselves can request a review. In contrast, football players or club staff can expect a yellow card if deemed to be “aggressively” making the VAR signal to a match official.

It’s clear why such a rule is in place. After all, we’re not talking two or four people here. Mayhem would surely ensue if twenty plus footballers ran around the pitch gesticulating like a bad game of Boxing Day charades. That said, it’s undoubtedly frustrating for the players. There exists potentially game-changing footage — corroborating their version of events — but they cannot request a review.

A cartoon image of one footballer's leg committing a foul by raking their studs down an opponent's heel.

Disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter was vocal in his concerns about VAR ahead of the 2018 World Cup, telling the BBC:

"For a purist in football, as I am, I think it is an innovation which is going too fast. Most of the referees have never worked this system. To go to the World Cup and introduce this system in the World Cup, I think it is not very clever. I don't feel comfortable, definitely not, and spectators don't feel comfortable."

Despite criticisms, FIFA deemed VAR’s debut to be a success, with referee committee head Pierluigi Collina claiming that 99.3 percent of "match-changing" decisions were called correctly at the World Cup — "very, very close to perfection". Without VAR, referees called 95% of incidents correctly.

In any one’s books, 99.3% is an impressive statistic and introducing VAR to the English Premier League seemed like the next logical step. But has it worked? Judging by Sam Cunningham’s June 2020 article for inews — in which it refers to the Premier League’s VAR system as the “laughing stock” of the football world you’d have to say no. He explains:

“The introduction of video assistant referees to the mainstream appeared largely positive when it was used well at the 2018 World Cup… It was the cleanest World Cup since 1986, with only four red cards throughout. There were significantly more penalty kicks — and who doesn’t like the tension and drama of correctly awarded penalties? — and a total of 335 incidents were checked, around seven per match.

“What on earth, then, has gone wrong in the Premier League? Less than a season into the use of VARs and English football’s top-flight technology-aided officiating has become the laughing stock of world football.”

Cunningham continues:

“This season, fans, managers and players have been baffled by offside armpits and toes, clear fouls not being fouls, obvious handballs not being handballs, and vice versa…

"Fans rage on social media at every unusual decision. Players say they do not understand. Managers say they are confused. That is the essence of the problem: confusion. The technology is supposed [sic] provide clarity, not cloud it. It is supposed to dissuade attackers from trying it on in the penalty box, instead of encouraging them.”

On the plus side, it’s still early days and feedback of the system has been largely positive so far during the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 tournament.

What’s more, sports such as cricket and rugby union have honed their usage of VAR over several years. One initiative is to allow fans in the stadium and at home to hear conversations between the referee and VAR — something that football’s powers-that-be are reportedly considering. At least that way, supporters are engaged throughout — helping to maintain the momentum of the match, even when the ball is out of play.

In November 2019, FourFourTwo suggested five other ways the Premier League could improve VAR:

1) Change offside interventions to a naked-eye policy

2) Use pitch-side monitors — or have the refs carry an iPad

3) Introduce a time limit on VAR calls

4) Write clear guidelines for what constitutes a high bar

And, last but not least, suggestion number five — scrap it altogether:

“It isn’t too late. There is a timeline in which we look back on 2019/20 as the lost season, as the year when the most popular league in the world was overshadowed by a chaotic VAR experiment that was quickly binned.”

It was a “lost season”, alright — but not in the way FourFourTwo expected. They clearly didn’t know what they’d got till it had gone...


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