VAR Technology: The End of Controversy in English Football?

Update: The Premier League has confirmed VAR will be introduced at the start of the 2019/2020 season.

A landmark in English footballing history will take place this weekend that could change the viewing of football as we currently know it. No records are being broken and Gareth Southgate’s national side aren’t going to be winning any major tournaments – like you needed any confirmation – but something arguably more significant will occur during the FA Cup 3rd Round tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace on Monday night. It will be the first competitive club match in England in which VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology is used.

It’s been in the pipeline for a while now with the likes of the Bundesliga in Germany and Serie A in Italy taking on the technology fulltime, and FIFA planning on using it during this summer’s World Cup in Russia. It appears the majority of those in football and its adoring pubs are ready to welcome the use of VAR with open arms, with many assuming the next logical step is use of it in the Premier League. But there’s need for caution and, more than anything, logical thinking.

Video Technology in Practice

The ascension of Sky and its blanket coverage of the Premier League, as well as the birth of social media, meant the trialling of VAR was more of an inevitability than a question of ‘if’ – the scrutiny on decisions in the modern game just causes too much controversy to ignore it. The logic of ‘more correct decisions in the game can only be a good thing’ is therefore hard to counter. But more ‘correct’ decision doesn’t necessarily bring less controversy. And isn’t that why we’re here in the first place?

Let us explain. Over the Christmas period, there were numerous incidents that if video technology had been used a different decision could have potentially been given – often with grave consequences. Let’s take the game between Arsenal and Chelsea on Wednesday as it’s the most recent example. With the game locked at 0-0, Jack Wilshere took a leap of bad faith to try and win his team a free kick. On replay inspection, it was a clear dive that would have probably but still arguably warranted Wilshere’s second booking of the game. 8 minutes later, he scores the opener in a well-matched affair.

Then there’s the debate about Hector Bellerin’s challenge on Eden Hazard for Chelsea’s penalty minutes later. To many it was a clear case of defender not making contact with the ball and making clear contact with Hazard. Stonewall to some but to someone as respected as Gary Neville on commentary, it was ‘soft’ with Hazard making the most of it.

The use of technology would have forced officials into a decision and whatever the decision reached, controversy would still surround it. Match of the Day proves as much regularly with two of the three ex-pros thinking one way, while one of the analysts – usually Martin ‘Eyes’ Keown or Detective Inspector Alan Shearer, in fairness – arguing the alternative.


The Elimination of Controversy?

Which leads us to our major point of contention when it comes to video technology: VAR technology in football won’t eliminate controversy. It will almost certainly only heighten it.

Since its use, VAR has been plagued by complaints about incorrect decisions, lack of communication over decisions and delays to games caused by reviews in the likes of Serie A and the Bundesliga with players already calling it a “catastrophe.”

The overwhelming success of goal-line technology, as an example, has been that the resulting decision can be given with such clarity and irrefutable evidence. But as we’ve already established, fouls in football are subjective – incredibly so. One seasoned fan can give a completely contradicting opinion on an incident to another. And most importantly, one referee can see something completely differently to another. Not through bias or tinted-glasses, but simply through opinion. That’s football.

Put another way, as a fan are you more likely to be angered at the referee missing a decision or more angered that the referee has looked at the decision and still determined there was no foul play?

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What Is a ‘Game-Changing’ Situation?

The main argument against the use of video technology in its entirety from the few who still adopt the position seems to be, “fans really love discussing controversy down the pub, so just let it be.” While football is of course ‘just a game’, the stakes are too high to subscribe to that notion. Whether it’s the emotional (and financial) investment from supporters, or to be a little cruder, the vast amounts of cash riding on one single refereeing howler, these things do matter.

In its current form, VAR technology can be called upon by the referee in ‘game-changing’ situations; specifically goals, penalties and straight red cards. It can also flag up cases of mistaken identity by the referee and will be used to automatically check every incident to see if a clear and obvious error has occurred.

But who defines ‘game-changing’? How quickly are they flagged up? And what are they? Clearly a potential offside leading to a goal is result-altering, as is a clear tap of a defender’s heels leading to a one-on-one. But what about an innocuous challenge in the middle of the park which could lead to a second booking? Or, as illustrated just this week, a perceived ‘dive’ 2 yards outside of the area which leads to a direct free-kick 20 yards from the centre of goal? These are both potentially ‘game-changing’ decisions, especially in a tight game of fine margins.


The Rugby Delusion

Rugby is often used as the bastion of video technology’s successful integration into sport here in the UK. And it does undoubtedly work well the majority of the time. But the difference in the nature of the two games is key here. Most specifically, rugby is a contact sport. We can get into the semantics of the phrase but football is not a ‘contact sport’ in the same sense whatever way you choose to look at it. Contact is a part of the game, yes, but ‘excessive force’ is a term used for a very specific reason; it’s subjective and can be interpreted accordingly.

The nature of rugby also means that changes in possession – while they do of course occur – are not as regular as in football. What will be the protocol if a penalty is denied for Team A, the ball gets hoofed down field and Team B scores 7 seconds later? Does Team A demand a video replay claiming they stopped playing waiting for said replay? What if the replay comes and it’s not a penalty? Is the goal given? Of course, this is an example which would rarely – if ever – happen. But it illustrates the problem; who decides when technology is used and how quickly will a decision be made?

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The Use of Challenges

Which is why the only way technology in football can be used effectively and with the least amount of controversy is with a challenge-type system, most notably seen in the NFL and in tennis.

Despite what critics say, decisions can be made relatively quickly – within a couple of minutes – and the game can be stopped without frustration for that amount of time. Most importantly, the onus is put onto managers and players to determine how important a potential decision is. No redefining the narrative through hindsight. Only yourself to blame.

Whatever happens with the inevitable arrival of video technology fulltime in football, the process needs to be as quick and clean as possible. But even the most ardent video technology campaigner couldn’t argue controversy would be eliminated by its introduction. Ironic given we’re only having the debate because of the stuff.


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