One of the most debated topics in football at the minute is VAR. Everyone involved both in and out of the game has their opinion on whether it is a good or a bad thing. While its decisions are controversial, to say the least, one thing that isn’t is its exposure to poor officiating. Those who have been critical of the technology are now realising the real issues behind it; the people controlling it.
VAR stands for “Video Assistant Referee.” The sole purpose of this technology in the game is to assist the referee and officials in the best way possible by spotting what they cannot. It is particularly primed to make close calls on offsides, goals and fouls that the officials are not 100% certain of. This was brought in to revolutionise the game and everything we saw from it before it entered the Premier League was positive. Its purpose is to operate under the philosophy of “minimal interference, maximum benefit.” It provides a way for “clear and obvious” errors as well as “serious missed incidents” to be corrected. The video assistant referee is an official in a neutral venue who reviews incidents and decisions made in a given game using the technology at hand.
VAR was first introduced into the Eredivisie league in 2012-13 as a mock trial after being developed in the Netherlands in the early 2010s. The first live trial of VAR was in a friendly match in July 2016 between PSV and FC Eindhoven. It then went on to be trialled again in a United Soccer League match. The system began to grow as the year went on with video reviews and pitch-side monitors being introduced. It took off in 2017 when it became widespread, eventually making its way to Serie A and Bundesliga for the 2017-18 season. It was then first trialled in England in the same season in an FA Cup game between Brighton and Crystal Palace. FIFA approved the use of VAR for the 2018 World Cup which was the first competition to use it in full at all games. Following its success at this tournament, it would be introduced into the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League a year later.
The 2019-20 season has seen VAR used across all major European leagues and competitions. This was the first year that it was to be used in the Premier League, and while there was some skepticism, the general opinion was positive after its performance in the World Cup. For years, fans and players have been asking for consistency with decisions due to teams losing by the smallest of margins in big games. Imagine how different history would have been if VAR was around; Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany would have stood, Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland would have been disallowed, amongst thousands of other decisions that went unseen. It was clear that the referees needed help now that the game was faster than ever. The demand for referees to make decisions on the spot in as fast a time as possible was clearly starting to become an issue with the evolution of the modern game.
More and more mistakes were being made by officials that weren’t even close to being correct. Almost every matchweek would see big decisions called incorrectly, and it simply wasn’t good enough. It is one of the reasons why not a single British referee was invited to take part in the 2018 World Cup, out of 99 referees! Down through the years, we have seen incidents where it is mind-blowing to think that the right decision wasn’t made. The status of English referees was falling fast, especially after top officials like Mark Clattenburg left. I’m sure at some point we have all hurled abuse at most referees when they have had a howler of a decision in a game. It is almost an integral part of the game, but it can be justified when it is a big decision. As each season went on, we began to question their decisions more, with confidence in officials diminishing by the minute. Something is causing a decline in refereeing in the modern game, but what could it be?
One thing I’ve noticed, particularly in the last two to three seasons is that the officiating starts pretty well and is consistent with the same fouls being flagged, but it never lasts. The introduction of penalties and cards being awarded for fouling in the box over pulling and dragging was implemented. This seemed to be a new, strict law that we first saw in the World Cup and now introduced into the Premier League. We were finally seeing defenders who consistently held onto jerseys at every set piece now conceding fouls. We had almost accepted this form of fouling at this stage because it was generally ignored, but this was a welcomed change. Just when we started to get used to this, the decisions surrounding it began to take a dip, with fewer fouls being called and cards handed out. Come Christmas time, it was almost back to normal, what happened?
The FA reviews rule changes annually and expect the officials to implement and understand them right away without much training. There have been so many rule changes in recent years that we can see the confusion from even pundits on the laws of the game. The top English officials are judged based on their overall performance when it comes to their decision making and mediation skills. This is why we have seen multiple referees being demoted down a division due to poor officiating on a given weekend. Match officials are very protected, however, and are kept quiet when they make wrong decisions. They never come out to own up to their mistakes, which infuriates fans and players more. We would respect them and understand them more if they took the responsibility, but they aren’t permitted to do so.
The Premier League saw this decline in performance from their officials and decided unanimously with clubs to bring VAR in for the start of this season. They knew that they needed help officiating, and this would also make their lives easier. There was also the belief that once this was introduced into the league, players would not get away with anything and thus have fewer complaints about decisions. They couldn’t have been more wrong. There has never been more debate from players than what we have seen this season. Pundits, fans, managers and players have all vented their frustrations with the system this season and how it is affecting the game. The experience of playing and viewing a football game has completely changed, but surely isn’t this the point of bringing it in,; to change the game? While celebrations are being ruined for both fans and players, shouldn’t we be happy that the correct decision is being made? We have always complained about goals scored that were offside, so when they are offside we need to accept that. Ultimately the right decisions are being made most of the time, but it really comes down to those in control over the system itself.
VAR was brought in to get correct decisions made consistently to stop those involved questioning everything. In doing this, it has just caused further confusion. The prolonged delays in making a call that could be seen after the first viewing are leading to a stop-start game. Celebrations are being ruined as goals became more frequently ruled out, for the most minuscule of reasons should I add. Toes and armpits are being flagged for offside for the first time. Handballs and fouls in the build-up to goals are now being called back. The frustrations around these never-before-seen decisions were beginning to boil. Outrage on social media and in the studios was in abundance with calls for the technology to be scrapped. “Why has it worked in other leagues and not ours?” was just one of the many questions being asked. But there is a straightforward answer for that; the way officials are using it.
VAR was becoming the main talking point at the end of every weekend of fixtures and began taking away from the football itself. Almost every game consisted of at least one major VAR decision. The sheer refusal from the on-field referees to ignore the monitor on the side of the pitch was what stood out to be the difference between the Premier League and the rest of Europe. Why are they refusing to look at the screen themselves in favour of letting someone not even in the ground decide? The attention soon turned to the officials involved making the calls rather than the technology itself. English referees have been known to be quite arrogant, and their refusal to use the technology at hand correctly when every other league has shows that. We never hear of many problems in the other leagues, because they are using it correctly and precisely the way it is supposed to be used for.
The “clear and obvious” debate shouldn’t even be up for discussion. A decision should only be made if something is clear and obvious, but this simply isn’t being done. The marginal offsides that we are seeing, which is enraging everyone on the receiving end shouldn’t take long to decide at all. If it isn’t clear at first glance, then it isn’t obvious and should be dismissed. The fact that it is taking two or three minutes to draw lines and decipher if it is offside or not is outrageous and the main reason VAR is failing in the Premier League. The International Football Association Board have questioned the Premier League’s approach to the system, deeming that it is in contrast to VAR’s intention. The organisation’s criticism of how the league is using the system is all you need to know for how badly it is being handled.
Former referees have come out in criticism of how the officials are handling the system, saying that they need to do better. The system itself is designed to help them and make the game better with fewer errors, but we just aren’t seeing that. Quite a lot of decisions being made are subjective; therefore they can not give a yes or no answer to an incident, but they still do it anyway. The officials don’t seem to understand what “clear and obvious” is and therefore make a snap decision from minuscule incidents. Players and fans can accept that offside is offside, but the fact that it is coming down to toenails and armpits is outrageous. If the only way that you can see someone is offside is to watch a replay 15 times and draw parallel lines, then you can’t make a clear decision, I don’t care who you are. This is one of the biggest misuses for a system that is directly there for correcting errors.
For all of its criticisms and calls for dispense, VAR is something that we need in football to have a fair game truly. We got exactly what we wanted; more consistent decision-making. Although it has taken some time to get used to and the offside decisions are still crazy, we’ve accepted that a foul is a foul and offside is offside. While the majority of talk around VAR is negative, the positives from it outweigh them; they just aren’t spoken about. Goals that were initially ruled out for offside have been given after mistakes from linesmen. Penalties that were waved off have been rightfully corrected and overturned, and vice-versa. We will start to see the pitchside monitors being used more often to speed up gameplay and give more responsibility to the on-field referee. In its first season, it has had its teething problems, but the league needs it at a time where officiating is very underwhelming.
VAR is here to stay, and it is something that is the future of football. We have been calling out for something like this for years, so give it time. We can no longer blame the referees once they begin to use this properly, which they definitely will now that the first season is out of the way. Keep the faith in the system; it can only get better.