The Varying Impact of VAR
The concept of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was first explored by a committee of referees back in 2010. Its primary motive was to eradicate the existence of clear and obvious errors and mistakes made by referees. The timing was appropriate after the infamous Thierry Henry handball against the Republic of Ireland in the previous calendar year. It was an exciting prospect and as the idea grew it was seen in many major competitions around the footballing world before being officially implemented into modern football globally.
After trials in the Dutch Eredivisie, US Major League Soccer, International friendlies and the Australian A-League, it was finally added to the laws of the game in 2018. The Bundesliga and Serie-A adopted VAR for the previous season beginning in 2017 and the UK followed suit as the English FA decided to implement VAR for all Premier League games in the 2018/19 season operating out of Stockley Park in London.
Nowadays in modern football, a VAR is always named as part of the refereeing team for a fixture and they themselves also have an assistant to share the workload. The philosophy of VAR is “minimum interference and maximum benefit”. In other words, the VAR is supposedly in place to only interfere when necessary to benefit the referee if they have made a clearly incorrect decision in an important event or they might have missed something significant completely. The four scenarios that require the involvement of VAR named by FIFA are for penalties, goals, red cards and mistaken identity.
On the surface, this instantly seems like a great concept. Football fans would be forgiven for thinking that VAR would be the answer to solving all refereeing errors and football matches would no longer be stricken with controversy over major decisions. However, this is not exactly the case. In this blog I will explore the issues surrounding the implementation of VAR, its impact on football and its referees and how there might be ways in which the system can be improved to reduce the stigma surrounding VAR.
The volume of criticism that VAR receives has stemmed from the previous misconception when VAR was first brought into the modern game that it would make refereeing perfect and that mistakes and controversy would be a thing of the past. The ‘maximum benefit’ part of VAR’s philosophy is aimed at removing all room for error for
the in-field referee. Previous disputes over whether a team should have had a penalty, a player was offside when he scored and whether someone should have been sent off were considered as solved by bringing in VAR. However, since the implementation of VAR, arguably there is more confusion than there is clarity that it hoped and football fans hoped it would provide.
VAR may be seen as more successful in being able to objectively correct errors made by referees that are based on facts such as giving the wrong player a card by mistaking their identity. An offense such as an offside is also arguably objective; either the attacker is in front of or behind the last defender. However, even the VAR’s decisions on the offside rule are often controversial and cause backlash. It is even worse with the lack of consistency and inaccurate interpretations of fouls that lead to penalties and red card offenses such as foul play.
There has been a significant rise in the number of penalties given in modern football as a result of VAR. The 2018 World Cup broke the record for the most number of penalties in a single tournament (29), beating the previous record of 17 in 1998 comfortably. This is because it is now common for referees to change their decisions regarding the awarding of penalties. The process is that once a referee denies a penalty, the VAR replays the event and will communicate to the referee that there may have been a mistake. The final decision is the on-field referee’s. They will consult the monitor themselves and make a final call as to whether to change their decision or not. This leaves the decision open to subjective interpretation as to whether the event deserves a penalty or not.
Other than subjectivity, there are many problems with this process. Firstly, the pressure that is inevitably applied on the referee. Once called to check the monitor, the referee has almost been coerced into believing they might be wrong. They know that their decision is being questioned and in an attempt to appear in sync with the VAR, they are considerably more likely to change their decision once they view the monitor.
Furthermore, the replays seen by the VAR and shown on the on-field referee’s monitor are both real time replays as well as slow motion. Slow motion is always difficult to interpret. Often a real time replay will look less incriminating than a slow motion repeat of the same event. This can influence the referees to change their decision that in real time was probably the correct one originally. This also can take a considerable amount of time which has a negative impact on the speed, intensity and momentum of a match. The average VAR consultation takes at least 80 seconds to come to a final decision. This makes football less appealing to an audience and this becomes even more frustrating if the final decision seems to be the wrong one and unnecessary.
The same issues are applicable to penalties and to red cards. Ultimately, they are subjective decisions so VAR is unable to completely eradicate refereeing decisions causing controversy and being disagreed upon. No matter which side the referee decides in favour of, there will often be room for other fans to see the situation
differently and condemn the decision. VAR is currently not succeeding in its role of assisting on-field referees and appeasing football fans. It is widely criticized and its usefulness is questioned. In the next section, I will explore how the VAR system and processes can be improved in a way that will change the impact of VAR to one that is seen as positive by the football world.
In its basic, fundamental form, I believe that VAR can be very useful for football. The reason why the concept of VAR was first devised needs to be considered in order to understand how it can have a positive impact on football games. A year after the blatantly obvious Thierry Henry handball that led to William Gallas’ goal against the Republic of Ireland, VAR was conceived of as an idea as to how to prevent obvious errors or mistakes made by referees on the field.
This is how VAR should be used. If the decision is taking a considerable amount of time to reach a conclusion then it is not worth the hassle. Penalties and red cards will always be subjective and will never be agreed upon by everyone, so why bother to take so long deliberating a decision that is not obviously wrong? In these cases, greater credibility would be given to a referee who stays strong in their own convictions and sticks with his original decision that wasn’t an obvious mistake. VAR should only change a decision and impact the game if the decision originally made is a clear and obvious error. Moreover, small mistakes are part of the sport. It is part of the emotional rollercoaster and enjoyment of the sport. If this is taken away by trying to seek perfection then VAR is having a negative impact. To prevent this there should be a high bar that has to be met by a decision for VAR to rightfully intervene and halt proceedings of a match, rather than difficult, unclear decisions.
VAR is also helpful with objective mistakes. The goal line technology system and helping referees with mistaken identity are examples of how the VAR can be correct and avoid disagreement and upset. Once these objective mistakes are identified, the process to correct them will not take long as a debatable and inconclusive decision review would. This helps the referees in avoiding obvious errors such as a ball crossing the line of the goal or a significant offside and these cannot be disputed. In summary, VAR should only be used in football for CLEAR and OBVIOUS mistakes, just as it originally intended by rectifying glaring errors and objectively wrong decisions.
Importantly, the referee should not feel the pressure of VAR, nor should they be intimidated by it. Instead, they should see it for what its role is, an assistant to them. A referee should be allowed to make a decision themself to go to the monitor and have a decision checked by VAR to avoid being coerced into changing a decision and potentially making the wrong one. The referee could see an event in real-time and, as humans are not perfect, they might be unable to conclusively make an accurate
decision on what they had just seen. In this case, the referee would be praised for making the personal decision to consult VAR and watch the replays on the monitor before making a decision. This is preferable over making an original decision and then being pressured and humiliated by changing their decision. It is not as admirable if they are told to reconsider their decision than it is for them to choose to assess it further before making the decision in the first place.
Another way in which VAR can be improved is by increasing the level of education that they are given regarding the physical elements of the sport of football. There has been heavy criticism towards VAR decisions as demonstrating a lack of understanding of how footballers’ bodies move and make contact during games. VAR can be improved by consulting ex-professional footballers, those that fully understand football and adopt new perspectives on certain events. Football is a contact sport to an extent and this needs to be considered by VAR when making decisions over physical events in a match. By understanding this more clearly, VAR is more likely to intervene in a positive way rather than resulting in questionable decisions.
Finally, and this suggestion may be more complicated than the others I have made, is to increase the transparency of VAR for football fans, players and teams. If the communication between the on-field referee and the VAR was to be available publicly, either in live time or after the match is complete, fans would be able to gain a better understanding as to the decision making process and the result. This is already the case in the Decision Review System in Cricket and the Television Match Official in rugby for example and has made for better viewing for fans as well as helping them understand decisions. This may be a difficult suggestion to implement as it could have an adverse effect and lead to more controversy and more disagreement from fans. However, there is such a significant volume of debate over how and why VAR and the on-field referee reach some of the conclusions they do that this might be a way of reducing this criticism.