VAR – making the game or killing it?

When Maradona scored his now infamous ‘hand of god’ goal at the World Cup in 1986, or when Frank Lampard was robbed of a clear goal in 2010, few England fans would’ve complained about a pause in the flow of the game while a video official reviewed the play.

Yet, now that the system is being slowly introduced, few fans seem in favour of the technology.

photo by Mvkulkarni23 CC BY

Video evidence has become commonplace in cricket (with the DRS system available to either team), in tennis (with the hawkeye line judges), and in rugby (where the referee can send any doubtful decisions upstairs, and the video ref can also intervene if he spots something the ref doesn’t).

It could be said to have cost England a second successive Rugby World Cup in 2007, when Mark Cuetto’s searing run to the corner was adjudged to have been a hair’s breadth too close to the touchline.

Yet, despite its obvious handball-spotting advantages and its wide acceptance everywhere from Twickenham to Wimbledon, video referees (or VAR, as they are called in football) are still highly controversial.

photo by Raúl Pérez Lara CC BY

During the weekend preceding this writing, winning West Brom manager, Alan Pardew, described the system as ‘bizarre’ after it robbed the baggies of one goal and awarded them another, in a first half of endless stoppages against Liverpool at Anfield.

It was only the sixth time the VAR system has been used in English football, so teething troubles are only to be expected; yet there are many fans who are already calling for it to be scrapped, as it slows down the pace of the game.

Pardew even blamed the delays resulting from VAR for the hamstring injuries to two of his players, after both teams were left standing around in the cold waiting for the reviews.

Yet despite this controversy, it looks very likely that VAR will be standard in every match at this summer’s world cup finals in Russia. “VAR will definitely happen,” claimed FIFA chief commercial officer, Philippe Le Floc’h, despite the fact that the system still needs to be officially ratified for the tournament by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which meet on the 2nd March.

photo by Kjetil Ree CC BY

Defending VAR, FIFA quotes evidence claiming that on average, only one decision in every three games is referred to VAR, yet at Anfield there were no less than three significant reviews in the first half alone, as well as a further stoppage in the second half.

The problem is that, unlike in cricket, where it is up to the players to request a review, in football it is down to the officials. In theory, they can only use the system to overturn clear-cut mistakes with goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identities.

Yet, many fans worry that referees will become so concerned about getting it wrong that they will err on the side of caution and refer decisions upstairs rather than risk being proved wrong by the TV replays.

How all this will affect England’s chances of winning the 2018 World Cup remains to be seen. Certainly, the players will have had little experience with the system, including all its decisions and delays.

One thing is for sure: it will affect the viewer’s experience of the big games during the tournament, even when the decisions go in our favour. After all, no one wants to celebrate a goal three or four minutes after the ball has crossed the line, even if it does get you through to the next round.

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