The Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) seemed a great idea a year ago. The latest in football’s conveyer belt of overdue technologies, poised to eradicate the biggest of refereeing errors.
It appeared great. Finally, a system that will help officials differentiate between a foul that is either inside or outside the box, whether a goal was scored by a player in an onside or offside position, or whether innocent-looking Kieran Gibbs was actually the devious, guilt-ridden Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Anyone against VAR’s introduction was seen as a mere luddite – technophobic footballing dinosaurs, unwilling to accept it as a necessary addition to the modern game.
VAR was a success at last year’s Confederations Cup – its maiden major outing. At times it required a long period for the officials to come to a conclusion, but the decisions were generally correct and did not have an impact on the flow of each game. There was a simple platform to build on; the referee was instructed to look at a screen and did so with minimal fuss. The time taken to review the footage had the potential to become shorter the more referees became familiar with the system.
Anyone who dared question VAR’s potential as the next big thing in football’s technological developments was ridiculed. “Give it time”, “it will work”. Rubbishing VAR was treated as some sort of football crime. The masses would jump to its defence on social media after each subtle highlighting of its various flaws. It was given a free pass purely because it was new, which was fair enough. The majority wanted, and still want, it to work and to be a success and therefore were happy to be patient.
But at what point is VAR not new? When is the sufficient time to give it patience up? Its introduction to English football this season has been shambolic. It is confusing and the structure of its implementation has been bizarre. There must come a point when it becomes necessary to fully scrutinise it without having Howard Webb or Mike Riley sat segregated and alone in a tiny room full of screens telling the masses that their opinion is wrong and that VAR is in fact the greatest thing ever.
VAR has been used in this season’s FA Cup competition, although the Football Association have rendered a proper trial of it completely pointless by refusing to use it in every game. It is the latest episode in the governing body’s attempts to lack any resemblance of consistency. To properly review VAR, it must be used in every single game across a competition, not just a big game on television just to have the cameras fixated on its very presence.
Last weekend, Notts County versus Swansea City would have benefitted from VAR when the hosts’ goal was allowed despite the ball rolling almost a yard over the byline in the build-up. VAR would have disallowed the goal without any further issue and the officials would not have been criticised for making an error. Instead, VAR was awarded to West Bromwich Albion versus Liverpool and Craig Pawson, who at least treated it as some kind of award: desperate to use it at every possible occasion like an over-excited child who received a cool gadget for Christmas. Pawson referred to the system on no fewer than three occasions and even managed to make an incorrect decision in the process. It would not have been a surprise to see him review the footage of him blowing to signal full-time just to make sure he had blown his whistle properly!
VAR’s use seems to drift from one variation to another between games. After one incident, the referee is holding their finger to their ear, signalling that they are receiving the opinion of another official in an external office. The next, they are running to the touchline to watch for themselves on a pitch-side screen. Nobody truly knows why some decisions are made by audio and why others require the referee to watch footage for themselves. If the official watching on a screen elsewhere is certain that the referee has made an incorrect decision, they should tell them. If they are unsure, it is not the conclusive error that it is claimed VAR will eradicate and therefore the referee does not need to waste time by watching footage. This has been the most confusing aspect of VAR in each of its FA Cup appearances, and the uncertainty must be cleared up for the sake of those watching both in the stadium and at home.
Several articles exist online pretending to be clued-up on the system, attempting to explain the most complexed of technologies, but each fail to genuinely correlate with the actions of the officials when VAR is implemented. Not every football fan wants to read long documents just to properly understand the system. It needs to be far more concise and easily interpreted by the general supporter so that they can identify when, why and how VAR being is.
Some referrals to VAR require over a minute and people in football, most notably those at the FA, cease to mention the impact this has on the attending supporter. If referees are going to be as VAR-happy as Pawson was on Saturday night, games could potentially last ten minutes longer which has huge implications. Away fans already have enough trouble travelling home after a midweek evening game, let alone one that finishes late because a referee has referred to VAR at every possible opportunity.
The plan to use VAR at the 2018 World Cup has the potential to ruin an already disastrous tournament – a worthy second in the list of future events that nobody can genuinely claim to be looking forward to, behind the 2022 World Cup. Alternatively, an outing in Russia could prove whether VAR’s shortcomings during its brief tenure in England are the fault of a flawed system or referees unable to understand it. And if the referees fail to come to terms with its procedure, how on earth are fans supposed to?
Officials will no doubt wince at the irony of football fans wanting to axe VAR from the sport. Supporters detest any bad decision given against their side and will go to the lengths of claiming a conspiracy against their club, yet are unwilling to accept the best form of technology able to help referees that there is currently available.
VAR is believed to increase the amount of correct decisions in a game by 96 percent to 98 percent which may seem small but included in the extra two percent could involve a goal that relegates or promotes a team. It is a system that does need implementing, just not in its current format. A less confusing, less time-consuming and far more simple VAR is ultimately a better VAR. Once that is achieved, football fans might just accept it.