Innovation and football are two words that you won’t always find together. Football has certainly evolved in the past few decades, with in-depth match stats, wearable fitness technology, fan identification systems, EPTS, carbon fibre boots and higher-quality balls. All of which are fantastic developments and are now prevalent in different leagues across the world. These are signs of an evolving game but none have caused controversy or aroused debate quite like the introduction of VAR. So what is the problem with VAR?
What is Var?
VAR, or Video-Assisted Refereeing, has been popular in other sports such as cricket and tennis since the early 2000s. Football came around slightly later, with goal-line technology being implemented in 2012 and instant replay first used as recently as the 2018 World Cup.
The premise relies on an extra set of digital eyes, utilising multiple cameras, and a team of assistants who replay and review all refereeing decisions made on the pitch. If the referee has made the correct decision, he is given a ‘silent check,’ i.e. a virtual thumbs-up.
If however there is a ‘clear and obvious error’, play is pulled back and postponed momentarily whilst the referee awaits a decision from those in the viewing room. A clear and obvious error in football can take one of four forms; a goal or no goal situation, penalty or no penalty, a straight red decision or a case of mistaken identity.
What’s the problem with VAR?
The main argument against the use of VAR is that it disrupts the way in which football is played. This momentary pause in action has been the subject of hefty debate amongst football fans nation-wide.
The game’s flow and momentum are what drives football and set it apart from the stop-start nature of other sports. The last thing fans want is the feeling that the momentum of a big push is being stripped away by unnecessary and over-the-top use of side-line chats and video reviews.
In a typical game, a referee who waves play on is hailed a hero versus the assistant who wants play pulled back for a minor infraction. This is now the view that many of VAR’s opposition hold against it – that to add a new technology which disrupts play (regardless of its benefits) is changing the way football is played, and not necessarily for the greater good.
This season alone we have seen numerous controversial VAR decisions which have been decisive in final scores. Brighton’s 3-2 win over Everton saw the first Premier League penalty given that was not initiated by the referee. It was also one that was later admitted to having been an incorrect decision.
Michael Keane’s light touch on Aaron Conolly was met with no whistle from the referee, as well as a “there’s certainly no way that’s a foul” from the commentary box but minutes later it was ruled as a penalty by VAR. So fundementally the problem with VAR is that the good it does is currently far outweighed by its impact on the games.
What are the benefits?
For those on the other side of the fence, VAR is a long-overdue addition to the sport. Football and controversy have always gone hand-in-hand. Bad decisions are endlessly debated in social circles, post-match interviews and morning television but the introduction of VAR is an attempt to bring some balance by offering a complete view of any dubious on-pitch incidents.
A referee’s view of the action does not always give them a clear picture. Prior to the introduction of goal-line technology, an over the line scramble would just as often have been a linesmen’s guess as it would an obvious goal.
The point of VAR is to mitigate any inaccuracies (outside of just goal-line replays), making them a rarity instead of the norm, regardless of how much the FA may love the media circus and attention that a game-changing decision can bring.
It could be said that at the core of most arguments against its usage are the the problem with VAR lies more with its use as opposed to the intention behind it. Decisions like the Brighton penalty, despite being an outlier, show that it doesn’t matter how many angles or extra-opinions you have of an incident, the wrong decision can still be given, even when they go against the referee.
There have been suggestions that video refereeing in football should be handled in a similar manner to that of Rugby and other sports. Each side is allowed one, or a number of reviews per game, and the crowd and fans at home should be able to hear the discussion between the referee and the VAR assistants.
For most, VAR is a love it or hate it addition to football. Most would agree that ironing out any potential clear and obvious errors is definitely a positive for the game; however the problem with VAR lies in its application. We can always chalk this season’s controversies down to teething problems, and look to see what changes will be made moving into the next year.
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