Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 4: The year of VAR

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 4: The year of VAR

BY PHIL WITHALL

The Dutch contribution to the football landscape can’t be ignored. From the concept of ‘Total Football’ to players of incredible individual brilliance, their influence over the last 50 years has been praised and admired by those it has touched. In the early 2010s the Dutch came up with a new concept that looks set to have a major impact on the game in perpetuity. Having looked at the implementation of video review technology in other sports they came up with the concept of a video referee, an extra pair of eyes that could look at contentious issues that the on-field officials may have missed.

The system was trialled, reviewing matches in the Eredivisie without the decisions being implemented, and the results were presented to the International Football Association Board. The intention was to get the rules of the game changed to allow for its use in professional football. Trials were held in various tournaments and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) slowly made its way into the consciousness of the football watching public.

Fast forward a few years and VAR has moved on from being a concept to becoming a part of the game at the very highest level. The system has been introduced into various competitions around the world. Its use in the 2018 FIFA World Cup was not without controversy. When Cristiano Ronaldo lashed out with an elbow during Portugal’s match against Iran he received just a yellow card following a VAR review. It was a decision that angered and confused many. In the same match Iran were awarded a penalty after the referee consulted VAR and changed his mind after Portugal’s Cedric Soares appeared to handle the ball in the penalty area. Replays showed this to be a wrong decision, one that again altered the outcome of the game.

Overall the use of VAR at the World Cup led to an increase in the number of penalties awarded, not always correctly, and it seemed to get things right more than wrong. The four officials, sat in a bunker in Moscow, had access to 35 cameras for every match. There was no aspect of the game that wouldn’t be picked up by the cameras, no incident that could be missed but those four FIFA registered officials managed to make game changing errors, even with the benefit of multiple views and multiple replays. The tendency for people to make mistakes in high pressure situations cannot be overestimated. It takes a certain type of person to react calmly, no matter what the evidence may present.  In 1983 Stanislav Petrov looked at a screen that told him the USA had launched a nuclear attack on Russia. All the information the technology provided him indicated that there were nuclear missiles headed towards him. His interpretation of the visual evidence available, his caution stopped the end of the world. That scenario is a little extreme but goes a long way to showing how the interpretation of an event is reliant on an individual.

Any sport is susceptible to the fallibility of its officials. How that individual interoperates the rules of the game within a split second in testing situations will always impact on the outcome of matches. The decision of referee Gottfried Dienst and linesman Torfiq Bahramov to award England their third goal in the 1966 World Cup final is still the matter of debate 50 years on and every football supporter will have tales of injustices carried out against their team. Logically, if you can limit the chances of errors effecting the outcome of a match it must be a good thing. Not everyone will see it like that, the delays that have accompanied some referrals are frustrating to players and supporters alike and some decisions will still be incorrect even with the new system. Video review systems have been used in other sports for some years and are seen as a reflexive part of the decision-making process. Could that be the case with football in the future?

In other sports with video review systems there can almost be an over-reliance on them. In Australia’s NRL rugby league competition the endless referrals to the reviewer reached such a level, and became such a hindrance to the spectacle, that the governing body had to issue a directive to referees to limit its use. Cricket, possibly the biggest user of video decision making technology, has become so adept with the process that there is no longer any acrimony surrounding its use. There is a reasonable argument that its introduction has led to more consistent performances from the on-field umpires with many of the referrals seeming to confirm the original decision.

Yet it’s hard to see how such improvements would flow with referees in football. The pace of the game, the fact that referees are constantly moving, trying to keep up with play rather than occupying a set position means that there will always be things that are missed. There are reasonable grounds to argue that the VAR will change the attitude of the players rather than the referees. If, as the World Cup seemed to show, there is a bigger focus on what happens in the penalty area and players are aware that what was previously an innocuous tug on a forward’s shirt will be penalised, logic dictates that defenders will modify the way they play to counteract the risk.

And there is an argument, repeatedly brought up in interviews and headlines, that football is a game of fine margins. Once players become used to the way the system operates there will be methods deployed to milk the system. A little subtle gamesmanship, already a depressing part of the game, will become further ingrained. If you know that the VAR will be looking closely at the way a defender uses his body in the penalty area it’s only logical that you will use that to gain an advantage. The number of penalties awarded at the World Cup would seem to indicate that there is a scope for this becoming an issue in the future.

During the recent Copa Libertadores semi-final between River Plate and Gremio, players were continually making the rectangular screen gesture used by referees to call for a review, something that is a yellow card offence and yet this was ignored by the officials. On the one hand the fact the official paid no attention to the claims, ignoring the theatrics of the players and letting the game flow is a good thing, however if the rules of the game are being ignored a culture of aggressive disrespect develops. The sense of entitled disobedience will become entrenched, the referees will have less control and VAR will reduce the respect for officials, making their jobs even harder than they already are. In that match a late penalty decision was referred leading to a five-minute VAR induced delay that resulted in riot police coming onto the field to protect the referee. It’s not a common occurrence but could these incidences of mass dissent become more prevalent as VAR becomes more widely used?

There is also an issue in how the use of VAR in the upper reaches of the game will further increase the disparity with the game at lower levels. It could easily be argued that its introduction into the FA Cup, initially during last season’s Crystal Palace vs. Brighton fixture, has introduced an imbalance in the game. If the system is there to ensure that important matches aren’t decided by contentious decisions, surely it has to be used throughout the competition. Whilst the match between Palace and Brighton was worth £135,000 to the winners, a drop in the ocean for them as Premier League clubs, a preliminary round win provides a little under £3,000 to a non-league side. In most cases that prize money will be more than the side receives through the gate and it can easily be argued that VAR would be of more importance further down the pyramid than at the top. However, the financial investment in using the system at 160 games makes little sense so you end up, basically playing two different sets of rules in the same tournament. 

Another question that will have to be asked is one of scope: just how many offences should be reviewed by the VAR? Take the NRL for example. At the start of the 2017 season there was a list of 15 different reviewable incidents which could be referred or reviewed independently. Even in a sport that has constant breaks in play that could be seen as a little excessive. How far should VAR be allowed to interfere in football? At what point do the on-field officials become secondary to the anonymous person hidden from view?

Of course, football has always been an evolving sport and rules change to improve the game; make it safer, reflect the times. The move to stop goalkeepers from being charged would have been resisted by many as not being in the spirit of the game. The introduction of line markings, changes to the offside rules, the back-pass rule… there is a long list of changes that have had a major impact on the game that may have seemed unnecessary but have led to improvements in the way the game is played and it could be that VAR will do the same at the highest levels.

However, the osmosis of expectation generated by its saturation coverage could have a negative impact on the lower leagues.  There was a case in a Copa Peru match between FC Retamoso and Auquiato de Pampamarca earlier this year when a referee, Albert Alarcon, used a press photographer’s camera to verify that a goal had been scored. Will this improvisation become common place in lower league football? Can a person in the crowd become part of the decision-making process? Will the reliance on technology, the instinctive reflex that it instils make people’s ability to accept the decision of the referee purely on what they have seen and how they have interpreted it more difficult? With the recent decision by the Football League to allow games to be streamed live on Saturdays, supporters in the crowd can now have replays of contentious decisions available in the palm of their hands. If they can see that an error has been made but there is no VAR in operation, will there be a heightened sense of injustice putting more pressure on the officials? Only time will tell the full impact of the use of technology on the matches in which that technology isn’t being used, it could be that there is minimal change but the restricted manner in which it is currently used seems to make that unlikely.

As technology develops it could be that the human element is removed altogether. It’s not beyond the boundaries of imagination for a computer programme to take the place of the officials sat in front of the live feed, to ensure that the exact letter of the law is followed at all times. If a computer programme can remotely control millions of pounds worth of military equipment, then surely determining whether or not Harry Kane dived or was tripped by a defender isn’t that much of problem. 

The Video Assistant Referee system isn’t going to go away, and its future influence cannot really be calculated. There will, almost inevitably, be important decisions that the system will miss, there is still the human factor involved and all humans are fallible, but Pandora’s box is now open and it’s not going to be closed again. The way football is refereed is in a state of transition and whether you’re for it or not, VAR will be here, constantly evolving and changing the way the game of football is viewed.

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