When it comes to innovation, football can sometimes be hit-and-miss. While recent years have seen the advent of goal-line technology and the surprisingly useful “vanishing spray”, many of FIFA’s newer initiatives, such as the expansion of the world cup to include 48 teams, haven’t been received as well by fans.
However, when it comes to Video Assistant Referees (VAR), there is no good reason for the misguided conservative backlash surrounding the implementation of this new technology.
So far, the arguments being put by the “anti-VAR camp” seem to consist of two main ideas – time lags and transparency. Neither truly holds any weight and the cases for the rejection of VAR are often fallacious to the point of absurdity, but at least the argument for the former has an easily understandable yet rebuttable premise.
The idea that waiting a few minutes for a referee to review a video is somehow a considerably worse experience than waiting a similar duration of time to watch a player being stretchered off a field seems strange in its own right – this argument is made even worse when the trade-off made for this additional waiting time is considered.
In a game where the margin between success and failure is so narrow, which in the modern era can amount to millions in financial terms, any attempt to improve the state of refereeing should be welcomed with open arms.
Additionally, for those who argue that controversy is good for football, and that VAR robs pundits of potential talking points, it is fairly safe to assume that they will cease to argue such things as soon as their preferred team loses a Champions League final to an undeserved penalty.
The argument concerning transparency, however, is gaining traction due largely to unfortunate circumstances. Anti-VAR pundits were given a field day in an FA Cup Fifth Round replay between Tottenham and Rochdale, where a number of strange decisions made by the referee, supposedly at the behest of VAR, turned the tie into a farce.
On the day, Referee Paul Tierney was guilty of disallowing a penalty by Heung Min-Son for a stutter in the run-up, and a perfectly legitimate goal from Fernando Llorente due to an alleged foul in the build up that most TV pundits and commentators were unable to pinpoint.
Even ignoring the correlation versus causation fallacy associated with using such an argument, most writers who have used this game as an example of VAR’s pitfalls are making one horribly wrong assumption, which is that VAR alters the perception of a referee when it comes to the subjective elements of officiating a football game.
The distinction must be clear – VAR is not intended to change a referee’s interpretation of a foul, it is meant to increase confidence in their pre-existing interpretation. In other words, it doesn’t change what a referee thinks constitutes a handball or a penalty, it just makes those things easier for a referee to identify.
An example of how VAR can be used to the benefit of referees officiating major games was seen last weekend, with both the finals of FA Cup, between Chelsea and Manchester United, and the DFB Pokal, between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt, deploying the technology to excellent effect.
At Wembley, a penalty was awarded to Eden Hazard after a late tackle from Phil Jones bought the Belgian down inches from goal without a clear touch of the ball.
However, through the use of VAR, referee Michael Oliver was able to determine that, as Jones tackled with the a genuine intent to touch the ball, he was not forced to reduce United’s numbers by brandishing red for the English defender.
Hours later, Felix Zwayer used the technology to determine that Kevin-Prince Boateng’s supposed handball was unavoidable due to intent and proximity, thus allowing Ante Rebic’s vital goal to stand. In both cases, VAR was used to supplement the judgement and interpretation of the referee, not to weaken or override it.
The implementation of a Video Assistant Referee may be the ideal solution to improve the state of refereeing and the confidence with which officials can make season-defining decisions.
The technology can still be perfected, and the process can still be refined, but on principle there is little reason to reject an innovation that has the capacity to genuinely improve officiating standards across the world of football.