The Bottom Line: Can VAR be fixed or will it ruin football?

It’s time to address a huge change occurring in world football. It’s those 3 letters that every football fan loves or hates hearing: VAR. I say you love it or hate it because it’s just that much of a lightning rod. One moment VAR can be helping you and the next moment it is ripping your heart out. It simply has that incredible power to completely alter football matches. Goals can be taken away, penalties can be given, players can have yellow cards changed to reds, and the list goes on.

The question becomes: is this too much of a radical change? Is this going to ruin football as we knew it and loved it? Well, it’s a hard question to answer but Martin Lowe and I had been arguing about it enough on Twitter that we realized we needed to vent. We needed to lay out our arguments in long form and let the people respond. We were tired of being constrained by 280 characters! We present our arguments below. The question: is VAR going to ruin football?

Michael’s Take: It can be fixed, but we must do it fast!

I’ll level with you, when VAR was instituted in the K League in the past few seasons and then at the FIFA World Cup, I was optimistic. I was tired of people getting upset when replays came out that their favorite team had been the victim of a terrible call that the referee had missed. I just took this point of view on it: the referees have too hard of a job. They simply cannot see everything that is happening on the pitch at the speed it is happening. They needed help, not criticism for messing up. So for me, VAR was that help. They simply needed another set of refs, the Video Assistant Referee, looking at video replays and letting them know if and when they had made a mistake and missed the call. It seemed just that simple. How naive of me.

Fast forward to this summer’s U20 World Cup and Women’s World Cup action and I have finally realized we have a monster on our hands. FIFA has taken VAR to the absolute extremes and the players have no idea what is happening to them. Take that Korea-Senegal quarterfinal that we all were pulling our hair out over. It was simply too much VAR. The players were unable to maintain the flow of the match because the referee was being told to review almost every single decision he had made. At the end of it, both sides had legitimate reasons to feel that they had been hard done by. The winner, our young Taegeuk Warriors, were left rueing the fact that the referee had awarded a penalty to Senegal for a harsh handball call and not for a push on Cho Youngwook seconds before. They were furious that Lee Gwangyeon wasn’t allowed his save on that penalty at 1-1 because his feet had left the line. They had to go all the way to penalties to win fair and square. But Senegal? They definitely also felt they were robbed. The real winner of that match was chaos. So you must be thinking: Michael, if you have such reservations, will you even be able to argue in favor of VAR? It’s going to be hard, but I will attempt the impossible.

I still do believe that referees need help. The game is too fast and there is too much going on to reasonably expect 4 referees to be able to make the right calls enough of the time. With the fact that viewers and players will see replays after the match, it is just simply unfair to all involved to not give referees this help. The refs are helpless to escape the criticism and quite frankly, dangerous behavior from fans if they mess up. So, for the greater good, we do need to offer them help.

The question I think needs to be asked is this: how much help should we give them? That’s where I think the VAR skeptics are missing the point. It’s not an all or nothing type of thing. Clearly FIFA has gone too far and decided to give VARs too much authority to change the match. So here is my proposal: let’s clearly lay out rules for how much help and when VARs can intervene. And yes, you’ll say, “But Michael, hasn’t FIFA and the IFAB already done that?” My answer: supposedly they have. In reality though, they haven’t given refs enough training and clarity so the VARs and on-pitch refs are having to make it up as they go. 

So, what is needed is a clear set of rules and regulations for how VAR will be implemented. In addition, there needs to be a training session for all stakeholders to make sure the implementation is smooth. Here’s how I envision that, with this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup as an example. At the beginning of the tournament, FIFA should have gathered the VARs for the tournament and had them give a presentation to on-pitch refs, players, and coaches about how they would be using VAR. What would they be watching for? What would they be monitoring? How were players and coaches meant to understand what is happening? That didn’t happen and you get the Cameroon match where Cameroonian players, unprepared for what VAR could do to them, openly protested the match. So that’s one thing that must happen. At the beginning of the season or tournament, FIFA or the league must lay out to all players and coaches how VAR is to be used.

Next, let’s fix the in-match VAR experience. How much should it be used and when? Well, it should be used for offsides calls for sure. This one always generates controversy but for me this is a no brainer. The linesman is tasked with running back and forth at pace with the back line to judge in real time whether a player has ventured offsides. Give me a break, that is freaking impossible. I have been at live matches where the linesman is lagging behind because the players are moving way faster than him or her. The linesman needs instant replay and the ability to be told that the line is clear and this person was onside or offsides. No questions asked. The constraint simply has to be that this has to be done in a reasonable amount of time. No more having the linesman wait to raise his flag or any of that lunacy. If the linesman thinks a player is offsides, he or she should raise the flag and stop play. Then, if he or she is unsure or the VAR is sure that the call was incorrect, the call will change. It’s going to take adjustment but offsides is in my opinion much too hard for an on-pitch linesman to accurately judge. The rule must be clearly applied on video review. It’s simple, you can be offsides by any portion of your body that can play the ball. So if you are attempting to play a ball when you were offsides, the play should be ruled dead. No questions asked. Was your foot offsides? Play is dead. Was your head offsides when the ball was played? I’m sorry, play should be ruled dead. Was your arm offsides? Well, this is different and one FIFA has gotten wrong at the Women’s World Cup. Your arm cannot play the ball so if your outstretched arm is offsides while running but your legs and head is onside, you are onside! Anyway, there will be growing pains but my view is offsides needs VAR. 

Alright, let’s get to the more subjective uses of VAR that have the potential to run amok. Handball is one. Handball calls on VAR are incredibly subjective and frankly, becoming harsh. Players can and frankly now should be aiming crosses and shots at defender’s arms to win penalties. So this is my proposal: VAR should not be used for handball. The fact of the matter is that handball is a subjective call by the ref and players can bias that call too easily via protest so why should they be allowed to protest for more looks and more scrutiny? If the ref or linesman saw handball in the box, they will call it and award the penalty. If not, oh well. I don’t want players protesting for handball and then bombarding the ref for VAR and changing his or her mind to give that penalty. That’s not fair to defenders.

How about cards? Should yellow and red card offenses be reviewed? Absolutely! VAR has the potential to actually curb the rampant cheating and simulation that is present in football. If the VAR spots blatant dives and simulations that the ref missed, the VAR should absolutely tell the ref to card the player. It’s a great equalizer. You are already eligible in the Premier League to be retroactively punished for diving, why not make that punishment in the match and actually affect the match and impose consequences? A rampant simulator will continually get carded for their indiscretion and be forced to change their game to adjust. Don’t tell me that’s not a net positive. And then the dirty challenges that risk injuries to players that the ref didn’t notice in real time? Definitely review tackles, elbows to the face, and other dirty plays to see if they warrant red cards. And if the ref is convinced by players to award a card to the wrong player, the mistaken identity case, absolutely the VAR should correct that right away.

Finally, here is my final proposal to fix VAR implementation for refs and players alike. The players must have no effect whatsoever on the ref’s decision to consult VAR. The players protesting and making VAR signals in protest? Automatic yellow cards for doing so. The only person the ref should be consulting about VAR is the Video Assistant Referee in the booth. If the ref has heard that a call was wrong, he or she will talk to the VAR booth exclusively. If there is still protesting from players while the ref has his or her hand to the ears to listen, cards should again be handed out. It’s ruthless but it is the only way the system will work. And you may say, “Michael, isn’t that too strict and unfair to players?” My response: “Life isn’t fair and protesting in football is annoying for all involved.” Anything we can do to let players play and stop the arguing must be done. Players will have to adjust and they will get to focus on the beautiful game again. 

My ideas for VAR may not happen. So I will end my argument in this way. I understand we have a monster on our hands right now. It is true that if left the way VAR is right now, it will ruin the game. So I’ll give it a specific amount of time. If the 2019-2020 EPL season, the first with VAR, ends with no improvement to the implementation of VAR, I will abandon my support of VAR entirely. But my argument remains: VAR can be fixed and can help refs, but only if we fix it now and tell them exactly how they are to use it. If not, it’s doomed.  

Martin’s take: VAR has never been suitable for football, so let’s admit our mistakes and cut losses.

A lot can change in two years, but the bumpy road of VAR hasn’t been one. Back in 2017, I evaluated the use of the system in its league debut; a shortened pilot schedule in the Australian A-League. Back then, the system was only starting to simmer on the surface of mainstream consciousness, but already those in the firing line were experiencing the niggles and frustrations that are brought with implementing such technology.

We were promised at the time that these were mere teething pains, aimed to be airbrushed out and rolled forward seamlessly, and with universal approval through last summer’s World Cup and this autumn’s English Premier League debut, the suggestion seems that VAR is hitting a crest of a wave.

Public opinion carries on regardless; football fans in the main expect technology to fix those officiating ills that have supposedly littered long in footballing history. While there are obvious merits in having “a system” decide upon “clear and obvious” decisions, the conflict comes when levels of grey come into play. Goal Line Technology has been a whirlwind success since its introduction, and for good reason; it makes an accurate decision that is deemed correct by all, provides little to no delay and doesn’t invite debate and resentment from the players involved.

Now can VAR lay claim to such benefits? Clearly not. The suggestion that “clear and obvious” is part of football is ludicrous. Aside from whether a ball has crossed the white line (which GLT covers), interpretation reigns free – and this is where the subjective opinions will continue to cast doubt on any decision. For every perceivably obvious red card decision comes those who defend it, via rulings or by personal bias. In the end, while VAR is sold as technology, decisions are made by people and people must reference interpretation of rules and their own judgement.

Those who persist VAR is the way forward have put themselves in a hypocritical position. It was argued that technology was brought in to aid officials, to reduce the scrutiny of their performance and clean up the game from so-called howlers. Fast forward a few years, when such “mistakes” are still slipping through the net, the same people who suggested they wanted to help referees are now complaining that the officials in charge don’t know how to use the system.

“Common sense approach” is a statement that is often banded around, but too often the referees are playing to the law, rather than their perception. The recent controversial example of this came at recent Women’s and U20 World Cups, where goalkeepers were being penalised for moving off their line in penalty situations. While few fans will advocate a keeper charging off their line before a shot is taken, it seemed widely forgivable if the keeper moved only an inch. If those in the stands are picking and choosing which rules they’d like to apply, what hope do those in the action have?

This uncertainty, and the fact that a human being is still being posed the question of interpretation has in turn exasperated the use of the technology. The ludicrous over usage, for menial decisions continues to be rife, and the introduction of a pitch side monitor doesn’t help matters. If the decision is so clear cut, the VAR box should be able to overrule; instead they put it back on the referee – in a hot-tempered partisan cauldron of emotion – the decision only becomes ever more poignant. In the end, technology heaps extra pressure on officials to make the right call, a decision that’ll rarely please all audiences.

With that pressure comes bias – not necessarily of the more conscious match-fixing variety, but unconscious bias intimated by environmental pressures. This was made apparent in Brazil at this summer’s Copa America, where questions were levelled by teams and individuals that suggested the officials had an agenda. From the perceived ill treatment of the invited guests from Asia, who weren’t used to playing to “South American rules” to the sending off of Lionel Messi against Chile – bias was a hotly debated theme throughout.

Opinion on such varies depending on which country you gauge reaction in. Many fans from a host of countries will point to the World Cup in Russia as being a successful rollout of VAR, but in reality, that only materialised as few decisions went against their adopted team. Fans of Morocco, Australia and Croatia may have other views. As with regular on the field officiating, the bigger teams will undoubtedly benefit more from the technology – through weight of play admittedly but also their outward perception.

While this often muddles itself out throughout a small tournament, the reality starts to hit home in a lengthy league campaign. The assumption that the Premier League have temperature sampled other leagues that have adopted the process is debatable, given the rife difficulties it has provided in Australia, China, France amongst others. England represent the last great bastion to truly embrace VAR, and that’s a worry for them, given the successful product they already have at their disposal.

Amidst the furore at the Women’s World Cup and last season’s UEFA Champions League, the Premier League have been quick to defend themselves – not by backing the technology fully but pointing out how they’ll do it differently. Openly dismissing decisions involving Danny Rose & Moussa Sissoko in last year’s Champions League, the Premier League are already backtracking on their decision to adopt VAR unconditionally. The problem is, with 10 matches a weekend taking place across the country, they’ll struggle to defend themselves when similar debatable decisions come flooding in.

A perfect way forward would be to return to a game without such partisan debate, such microanalysis, such delay in emotion and lack of clarity, back to a game where differing opinions were celebrated, enjoyed and accepted. Where a marginal offside wasn’t played back, time after time, assessing the credentials of the referees and instead was accepted given the speed and complexity of the game. The only way technology can ever succeed is when rules are watertight, in which a Martian would be able to rule accurately on. We all know that football isn’t like that, so let’s not pretend it is.

About Michael Welch 67 Articles
That Halfie Korean-American who loves football (I mean, soccer).

5 Comments

  1. Take VAR out. Just put more referees on the pitch. And for the modern day footballers, if you must have VAR, use it only for certain cases such as an offside that the line official missed. But every freaking handball that stops the play after 3 minutes have passed ruins the game or REVAMP VAR..almost completely.

    • Questions for you Gk: how many more referees should be on the pitch? What will their jobs be? If you just focus on offsides, is that enough help to the on-pitch referees?

      • I believe the NFL has 7 referees just on the field which i believe 5/7 can call infractions. Nba has 3-4 officials on the court who all can call infractions. I think international football only requires 3 officials to be on the pitch. Two of those officials are line officials…which means they are not able to roam freely around the pitch, they can however signal to the main official but can not call an infraction themselves. If football were to implement maybe two additional ON THE PITCH assistant referees, it would be a huge improvement. That creates a three way balance as well. Head judge should always have the ability to overrule but at least he has 4 more eyes that can help him make the decision.

        Like the NBA, it takes seconds for a group of officials to come to a decision. If they all can not agree on a specific play, THEN they will stop and refer to the play review and use technology.

        NBA and NFL refs usually go with the decision of the ref that had the clearer view of the play, simply reducing the time of consulting each other. That same concept can be applied to football. It will relieve some of the immense pressure that a head referee has in “soccer” since he is literally the only one calling infractions that happen on the pitch. You can clearly see referees being flustered by the pressure and make the wrong decision.

        Corruption and bribery happens in every sport tho. Having more refs on the field wont ever change that. I think video replay helps in that regard.

  2. We already discussed this on Twitter last year but I’ll say my piece again. Var was set up to fail from the start. There’s literally zero reason for it to take as long as it does to make a decision when you have a room full of guys watching every angle with jog dials. By the time the ref makes the decision to do var, that whole room along with the rest of the world watching on TV already knows the result. Also there is no reason why every decision has to be made by one guy especially when there are bribery/safety concerns.

    I don’t think anyone disputes that waiting 4 years for a tournament and then wrongly going out by an obviously bad ref decision sucks. Var needs to stay but not in its current form.

  3. Getting rid of VAR altogether is literally an irrational argument. Michael, you’re right. The problem isn’t replay review. The problem, as always is policy and implementation.

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