Video Assistant Referees: Good or Bad?

Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation. Nevertheless, could Video Assistant Referees be a force for good in the fight to make elite football truly fair?

Background

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) reviews decisions made by the head referee, with the use of video footage and a headset for communication. VAR’s are not, at present, part of the Laws of the Game but their use is currently being trialled by the International Football Association Board in several different competitions, including the Confederations Cup and various youth tournaments.

There are four types of call that can be reviewed:

  • Goals and potential rule violations during the build up;
  • Penalty decisions;
  • Red card decisions (note that second yellow cards are not reviewable);
  • Mistaken identity in the awarding of a red or yellow card.

Interpretation & Debate

Fans across the globe have all witnessed the same scene; the centre back is the last line of defence, he throws himself into a tackle as the pacey forward rushes towards goal, both fall to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, the ball is lost and the attack is halted. The decision not to award the foul and allow play to continue is controversial, splitting fans and pundits alike despite dozens of cameras having instantly replayed the incident from varying angles and in slow motion. Footballing decisions are often dictated not by fact, but interpretation.

I believe that debate regarding key decisions is essential in forming part of the beauty and appeal of football. J.B Priestley agreed in his book The Good Companions (1929).

Priestley wrote:

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper…Moreover it (football) offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.

VAR’s have at times seemingly worked well. In an U20s match between Argentina and England for example, an elbow missed by the on-field referee was spotted and dealt with within a few minutes using the VAR.

Yet debate still raged around whether the act was punishable by a red card – had the Argentine player deliberately committed the foul? Was there intent? These are questions that are extremely difficult to answer even with the benefit of multiple angles and replays.

Similarly, the VAR system provided a farcical moment to forget after scenes in Cameroon’s Confederations Cup clash with Germany. The Africa Cup of Nations holders were trailing 1-0 against the World Cup winners when Mabouka caught Emre Can with a high studs-up challenge. Referee Wilmas Roldan initially brandished a yellow card before VAR was used to reassess the incident.

The punishment was upgraded to a red card on review but Roldan mistakenly showed this to Mabouka’s team-mate, Sebastien Siani.

Cameroon’s players were understandably irate and protested their case to the Columbian referee, who eventually sent off Mabouka following a second look at the video replay.

Germany v Cameroon: Group B - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017
Cameroon protest a case of mistaken identity – Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Although the VAR helped to eventually identify the correct offender, debate still continued as to whether the offence was even punishable by red card.

VARs have the potential to correct incorrect decisions. But, they also have the potential to make incorrect calls, much like a regular referee. VARs in their current format are fundamentally flawed. Football is a game of opinion and interpretation after all.


Refereeing Authority & Continuity 

One major concern is that the on-field referee would be continuously undermined. To be a referee you need to be authoritarian, which allows for conviction in the decisions you make. But with two referees, authority and conviction have the potential to be critically compromised.

To fix this it is essential that the on-field referee and the VAR remain part of a continuous and unified team; working on multiple matches together, therefore allowing communication lines, understanding and a strong relationship to develop.

The relationship between referees and linesmen has developed as footballing history has progressed. Examples of miscommunication in referring decisions on the biggest stage are ten a penny – in the 1974 World Cup Final the English referee, Jack Taylor, was assigned two linesmen who didn’t speak the same language as each other or Taylor!

Similarly, in the 1966 World Cup Final a linesman from the USSR had an infamous conversation, in god knows what language, with a referee hailing from Switzerland. In modern day football referees and linesmen operate as a collective; referees operate with the same linesmen, allowing relationships and understanding to build.

This path must be followed when looking at VAR’s. Just as it is beneficial for the same referee to operate with the same linesman, it is also essential that the same VAR operates within the same team.

Could a VAR have solved this oldest of footballing debates? – mirror.co.uk

It may be an idea to ensure referees are fully equipped with the latest communications hardware as to employ a little more transparency and clarity to players and fans alike; much like the system in Rugby Union. For the Rugby Union TMO (Television match official) system to be successful in Football, players and managers would have to endeavour to treat referees with greater respect, allowing referees to make decisive decisions without being coerced.


Rhythm & Flow

The flow of the game is essential to the beauty of football. The most successful teams display a fluid, rhythmic pattern of play – think Barcelona under Guardiola and the AC Milan team of 2003-2008.

Often VAR-lead decisions can take up to five minutes in which players can do little else but stand around and fans wait. This can take away from the normal rhythm of the game, not to mention detracting from the excitement and drama. Uncertainty when deciding whether a goal should or should not stand even takes away from the purist footballing emotion – the goal celebration.

Just how retrospective a decision will the VAR consider? Thirty seconds? A minute? How long is too long and will this effect the flow of the game in a negative manor? I suspect it will.

Many have argued for the implementation of the challenge system, as seen in tennis, as a potential way forward for the VAR system, a system which allows players three challenges per set.

I find this potentially worrying. Challenges could be used as a resource to help to disrupt the oppositions flow; all coaches want to be victorious and it is difficult not to see the likes of Mourinho using challenges to disrupt the games rhythm. Managers already utilise substitutions in a similar way, another time-wasting resource is not necessary.

The dynamism of the game is one of the primary reasons as to why football is so adored by millions the world over, from China to Brazil. If the introduction of VARs causes the parameters to shift drastically then a vital part of the games aesthetic and raw emotion could be lost forever.


Conclusions?

Among the greatest aspects of the beautiful game is that football is governed by the same set of universal rules; from the Willow Pond FC to Manchester United. If technology evolves it leaves a huge gap between grass roots and the games upper echelons, both financially and culturally.

Besides, why does football need to be clearcut at all times? Why now all of a sudden when Rugby Union has had its TMO system since 2001? What has motivated FIFAs introduction of VARs? The rhetoric surrounding VARs rarely centres around reaching clarity for fans; rather, a decision being ‘worth hundreds of millions’ – a sad indication of where the beautiful game finds itself in the 21st Century.

Even FIFA big-wig Massimo Busacca has recognised flaws in the VAR system, stating that…

In general we have really good results but for sure… many aspects should be improved,

It is essential that Busacca and FIFA treat the VAR system with the utmost care as to ensure that theatre, beauty, and flow remain key cornerstones of our much loved game. VARs currently create more problems than they solve but they could become a useful tool, given time to develop into a smoother operation. A serious culture change in the way football treats and scrutinises its referees – both on and off the field – may also be key to any potential success.

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