Is Technology Helping Football?
So Near, Yet so VAR?!
Modern football is a peculiar sport. The advent of social media, the need for footy channels to fill time 24/7, and clueless pundits who change their minds as often as a clean person changes their underpants, means we spend more time talking about external nonsense than the actual football.
Fans of certain clubs celebrate ‘winning the transfer window,’ ex-players discuss ‘top top’ players, and betting adverts permeate every aspect of the sport. Recently, football fans have a new obsession: VAR.
VAR = Very Annoying Replays
Okay, it actually stands for Video Assistant Referee. There is a VAR team in a Video Operation Room (VOR) who are supposed to automatically check every single on-field decision which falls under one of four reviewable categories:
- Goal or no goal
- Penalty or no penalty
- Direct red card
- Mistaken identity in awarding a booking or sending off
If VAR doesn’t see any issue (known as a silent check), it tells the referee to continue, and there should be no delay in the game. In other cases, much to the consternation of fans and pundits, there is a delay of up to several minutes while the referee checks to see if a decision needs to be reversed. In some dramatic cases, the ref heads to the video booth to see the replay.
When the game is set for a delay, the ref is supposed to point to his ear to indicate a check is in progress. For a decision to be overturned, there must be a ‘clear and obvious’ error. When this happens, the ref can do one of three things:
- Follow the advice of VAR and overturn a decision.
- Ignore VAR’s advice.
- Go to an On-Field Review (OFR)
Usually, an OFR occurs when a ref must make a ‘subjective’ decision such as whether a player’s offense warrants a red card, or if a foul/handball has taken place in the penalty area. A referee can only conduct an OFR on the advice of the VAR team.
VAR was first tested in the Dutch Eredivisie during the 2012-13 season on a mock trial basis. It was moved forward and properly trialled in August 2016 in the United States Major League. The VAR system was used in Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga at the beginning of the 2017-18 and caused controversy during the 2018 World Cup. The Premier League adopted VAR from the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, and it was used in last season’s Champions League.
VAR! Ooh-Ah! What is it Good For?
If a VAR call goes against your team, absolutely nothing! Fans of Manchester City have witnessed VAR disallow crucial last-minute winning goals on two occasions, both times against Tottenham Hotspur. Suffice to say; they are not pleased! However, if VAR helps them defeat rivals Liverpool for example, they’ll be right on board.
That’s the thing about VAR. It is great when it helps your team, and the worst creation ever when it goes against you. There have certainly been major controversies:
- Manchester United being awarded a contentious handball decision against PSG in last season’s Champions League.
- France benefitting from what most observers described as a diabolical penalty decision in the World Cup final against Croatia.
- A series of farcical VAR decisions in a 2018 FA Cup match featuring Tottenham Hotspur and Rochdale.
VAR has proved useful on many occasions as well. Perhaps one of the best uses of it came in the 2019 Champions League quarter-final between Manchester City and Tottenham. The home side scored what seemed like a last gasp winner, only for VAR to correctly rule the goal out for offside. Spurs marched all the way to the final.
A significant number of pundits are hysterically claiming that VAR is ruining football. However, I believe that the problem isn’t necessarily the technology, but how it is being implemented. The powers that be are not making things any easier for officials by changing the rules of the game on a whim.
Take the new handball rule, for example. In the Premier League this season, any goal created with the use of hand or arm will be disallowed, even if it is accidental. Man City was furious when the implementation of the rule cost them two points against Spurs after Laporte accidentally handled the ball in the lead up to what would have been a winning goal for the home side.
As dubious as this rule is, at least there is a consensus of what is supposed to happen, and VAR can help a ref see if a handball happened or not. However, the rule doesn’t apply to defending sides, and in theory, a defender can look to deliberately kick the ball off an attacker’s hand to ensure they won’t concede a legitimate goal.
VAR Doesn’t Change the Poor Standard of Officiating
One of the main issues with VAR isn’t so much the technology itself, but how it is utilised. Referees still make subjective calls based on what they see from VAR. The ridiculous decision to award France a penalty for a handball in the 2018 World Cup final is a case in point. How the referee decided that the Croatian player, Ivan Perisic, deliberately handled the ball, remains a mystery.
The problem with VAR and handball decisions was clearly illustrated in this decision. Slow-motion replays made it appear as if Perisic deliberately moved his hand toward the ball, whereas full-speed replays show he didn’t have time to react. The referee viewed the replay about a dozen times and incredibly, awarded a penalty.
VAR can’t prevent referees from making massive mistakes, and the ref has the option NOT to use the technology. In a recent game against Crystal Palace, referee Kevin Friend disallowed an injury-time equaliser for Aston Villa. He decided that Jack Grealish had dived as he laid the ball off for Henri Lansbury to score.
Whether you believe Grealish ‘dived’ or not, the fact is, he passed the ball to a teammate who scored a legitimate goal. Remarkably, given the importance of the decision and the timing, Friend opted NOT to use VAR which would surely have overruled him. Yes, fans don’t want VAR used every minute but what’s the point in having it if it isn’t used in significant decisions?
Is VAR Worth Persisting With?
Aside from the controversies, the main issue with VAR seems to be the length of time it takes to make decisions. One would have hoped that most of the problems would have been ironed out before it was brought into the game on a massive scale. However, given the pressure major governing bodies are under to ensure the success of the new technology, it is likely that they will fix the teething issues within the next couple of years.
Yes, it will lead to frustration, game delays, and controversy, but when it is improved, VAR should help improve the game as a whole. Younger players will grow up knowing they can’t wrestle opponents in the penalty box while defending a corner, nor can they cheat to win a penalty. Players such as Sergio Ramos will no longer be able to commit assault unpunished, and teams will know that offside decisions will almost always be correct!
There will be further problems, but ultimately, I believe that VAR, can, and will, change football for the better. I just hope it doesn’t cost MY team this season!
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Patrick graduated from the National University of Ireland, Galway with an MA in Literature and Publishing but decided he would rather have the freedom of a freelance writer than be stuck in a publishing house all day. He has enjoyed this freedom since 2009 and has written thousands of articles on a variety of topics but sports betting is his passion. While his specialty is finding mismatches in obscure football leagues, he also likes to use his research skills to provide punters with detailed winning strategies in horse racing. You can check out his personal blog on www.lynchthewriter.com or Twitter @pl1982 where he writes content to help small businesses achieve success.