Thursday. 30.03.2023

VAR, assistance to referees or spectacle killer?


Video Assistant Referee, or VAR for short, is a hot topic right now in football. From experts on the TV to fans in the pubs, it’s difficult to talk about the game now without falling into a discussion about an incident where VAR has or has not played its part.

 It has been argued for some time that if we have technology available to us to help eliminate refereeing mistakes then it should be used. Since its introduction to various international competitions and European leagues, we now have it in The Premier League, which is considered to be if not the best league, certainly the most lucrative.

So those who championed the use of technology to improve decision making have triumphed. Referees can feel they have the back-up of colleagues in a cupboard with every angle and inch of grass covered by dozens of cameras with high tech editing facilities to slow down, survey and scrutinise any controversial decision, thereby guaranteeing our friends in black a good night’s sleep, right? Not exactly.

Rewind back to the 1970s

Allow me to go off at a tangent. Rewind to Britain in the 1970’s. Terrorism and football hooliganism were major concerns for both citizens in the UK and security forces tasked with preventing or prosecuting those responsible.

Technology had evolved so as to allow the implementation of CCTV cameras on motorways, in cities and at important public places. By the 1980´s the government were installing 500 cameras a week on high streets up and down the country. The golden age of CCTV came in the 1990’s with the Home Office spending over 200 million pounds on systems between 1994 and 1999. Today, it is estimated that there is a camera for every 11-14 people.

There is no doubt that cameras have been fundamental in the fight against crime, and although they might not prevent crime they have been extremely effective in prosecutions. Police figures point out that 95 per cent of murder convictions have used evidence from CCTV cameras. Although it has caused an interesting problem for the courts, particularly regarding minor crimes.

Today, it is estimated that in the UK there is a camera for every 11-14 people

Before the mass use of surveillance there were many minor crimes which were either never reported as nobody knew they had occurred (a couple having sex in a public place) or it was decided that no reports would be made (a small fight in the street which would quickly end). But since these crimes could now be recorded by the cameras, more and more prosecutions were appearing before magistrates in smaller local courts, creating a jam of cases, slowing down the judicial system. It is this problem which we can now see in football with VAR.

Although VAR, alongside goal line technology, can be useful for blatant fouls, the ball crossing the goal line and an obvious offside and handball, it has also introduced a secondary phenomenon. In the past when an action was missed by referee, fan or commentator and wasn’t felt important enough for the TV people to replay, it would be left firmly in the past, the match would continue uninterrupted, allowing the game to flow. Here lies the comparison with post CCTV in the UK, mentioned previously.

Whereas with surveillance in the streets, where local courts felt the undesired consequences, in football the natural pace and intensity can be put on hold for minutes at a time to check a millimetrical offside, slight hand contact, or fouls in the box which at human eye speed is difficult to call but with technology can be seen to look more or less like a penalty depending on the angle and speed you see it.

Killing rhythm and intensity

At the time of writing, in the Basque derby between Athletic Club de Bilbao and Real Sociedad, the match was stopped twice for 6 or more minutes to rule out two goals. The decisions were correct but in a fierce local derby like that it can kill the rhythm and intensity of what should be a terrific spectacle. Not to mention the effect on goal celebrations, the release of emotion when your team scores is a special moment. We embrace strangers, screaming in unbridled joy, only to see the referee stood motionless awaiting orders from above. It was all for nothing. The euphoria was wasted. This is an example were VAR correctly overturned decisions made by the referee.

Each football team should only be allowed to refer to VAR a restricted number of times during a game, similar to tennis

During the last Women’s World Cup in France, we saw countless occasions where VAR stopped games to alert the referee to something they had seen but the referee hadn’t. There has been much debate about when VAR have the authority to intervene; bringing the game back once the ball is no longer in play. A lot can happen between the time of first incident and the ball going out, including a goal for the other team.

If we want solutions we must go back to the dilemma of surveillance in our society. Surveillance should only be used to corroborate an account or support the innocent. It is intrusive, expensive and time consuming to have people watching screens trying to find crime in the public domain.

So in football we could apply a similar system on the pitch without losing the passion and flow of the beautiful game. Each team should only be allowed to refer to VAR a restricted number of times during a game, similar to tennis. This would bring control and decision making back to the players on the pitch and out of the hands of VAR.

A simpler solution all together would be to ignore VAR completely. Accept that mistakes happen and enjoy the imperfections, controversy and theatre. If that’s what you want, you could do a lot worse than see your local lower or non-league club, whose players still play in this spirit. Most of the time you will walk away feeling that you haven’t been robbed.

VAR, assistance to referees or spectacle killer?