VAR: Save or Kill Football?
By Jay Kim, English Columnist
As the referee faces the crowd and draws out a big rectangle, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs coaches, players, and supporters alike anxiously stares into the LED screen located in the corner of the fully-seated Etihad Stadium during a heated Champions League match on April 17. A sense of tension pervades throughout the stands. After the referee peered into a monitor for a while, he pointed towards the ground, overturning Man City’s Raheem Sterling’s goal. The Spurs progressed to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions league, edging over Mansour and his €1.5 billion-invested club.
As the saying goes: "bad calls or bad breaks are part of every sport. That's life," author Andrew Caruso said in his book Sports Psychology Basics. This somewhat popular quote, however, has become less and less relevant with the development of video technologies that are used to assist game officials to confirm their calls with video evidence and make needed call reversals.
What is VAR?
Video Assistant Referee, more commonly known as VAR, is a review process in football that head referees use to review decisions with video footage and a headset for communication. Its implementation has been a subject of a heated controversy among many football fans, players, coaches, and officials since its first major international competition debut in the 2016 Club World Cup. Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino himself, who has benefited from VAR, has ironically once criticized VAR’s for potentially “[changing] the spirit of the game,” in a press conference not long ago. Surely, Pochettino is not alone in expressing concern over VAR’s potential of ruining the spontaneity of the moment, an integral part of football. Alan Shearer, a retired footballer and the English Premier League’s record goalscorer, has even went on to tweet a far-from-complimentary evaluation of VAR to be “sh*t.”
Despite these concerns, the full implementation of the VAR is only a matter of time. Major international competitions like the World Cup and various football leagues have already adopted it: Serie A (Italy), La Liga (Spain), the Bundesliga (Germany), League 1 (France) and many more leagues are already utilizing the review process at the highest level. The Premier League, last of the top 5 football leagues in the world, is planning to introduce the VAR system in the 2019-20 season.
As an avid football fan myself, my take on the technology is divided. Drawing from personal experience, VAR’s have arguably made the sport boring by reducing the human element, which (I would venture to say) is what makes football the world’s most popular sport. The injustices and mistakes made by the referees are what fosters an environment where supporters from different clubs could converse about the outcomes of the match in a heated debate over dinner. With VAR putting an end to obvious bad calls, soccer fans probably will never be able to witness anything like Argentinian Icon Diego Maradona’s legendary hand-goal against England in 1986, when Maradona punched the ball in for a goal. Despite these drawbacks of the technology, I believe VAR’s would ultimately serve as a plus: The newly implemented review system would create an environment where elite football players could demonstrate athleticism with fairness and transparency, avoid referees making embarrassing mistakes like in the case of Maradona, while introducing an unconventional layer of entertainment to the beauty of football.
Pros, Cons, and resolution?
The benefits in implementing the VAR system is quite clear. The system has reduced human errors by around 80 percent and has decreased the chance of wrong calls from 7 to 1.1 percent according to a report from the International Football Association Board (IFAB). VAR’s would give human referees a second chance to look at a play and take the appropriate course of action before hastily pulling out a red card. Aside from statistics, VAR’s could also positively affect players’ behavior in the field. For instance, players will curb from diving or committing aggressive fouls in general that they tend to commit when the referee isn’t watching.
Although I believe VAR system is ultimately beneficial, the current VAR system has much space for improvement. One trend many football fans point out is that VARs are causing a substantial increase in the number of penalties granted, which has been particularly noticeable during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After 32 matches out of 64 total World Cup matches, referees have awarded 16 penalties, which is twice the usual rate for the tournament. Six of them were given after a VAR review. Although many argue that this is a negative byproduct of VAR’s as it increases the time wasted, I think not as the entertain aspect of the new technology seems to be vastly underestimated: When a referee stops the match to review a vital call like a contested goal, there is an immediate sense of tension and buzz that permeate throughout the stadium. The suspense created by the VAR review is unparalleled and contributes to drama, like the surge of emotion both players and supporters have felt in the match between the Spurs and Man City. Another trend I speculate is that referees seems to have become overly dependent on the VAR. The dependence of this new technology could jeopardize the authority and even make people question the necessity of referees. Furthermore, although VAR’s were developed to eliminate human errors, the human element still plays a huge role in the decision making, leaving the whole purpose of VAR’s seem discrepant: According to the design of the review process, only the head referee can call for a video review and is the sole judge in making a decision. The authoritative nature of the VAR design wouldn’t make the sport any fairer but will only leave football vulnerable to match fixing. Lastly, a main concern amongst apologists against VARs is that the stoppings for VAR review could disrupt the flow of the game, butchering the team’s tempo and edge. However, this criticism is illogical if we compare video replays stoppings with other stoppings such as for free kicks or corner kicks: Video replays take up just 1% of playing time (80 seconds on average according to ESPN), compared to 28% for set-piece stoppages according to an IFAB report.
A possible resolution to better the VAR system would be to rectify flaws by modeling other sports while maintaining its commendable aspects. In the MLB, for example, each manager is allowed one challenge per game, with additional challenges granted if the previous one was successful. Enabling football managers to request a review with limitations would eliminate the dictatorial aspect of VAR while preventing managers from excessively requesting instant replays, which would prevent video reviews from harming the flow of the game. Of course, there are some commendable aspects as well. According to FIFA, VAR’s are currently issued only under four circumstances: if and only if the situation pertains to a goal, penalty decisions, a direct red card incident, or in the case of a mistaken identity. These limitations that sets stone when VAR can or cannot be used is a key strength to be maintained. There are so many aspects of football that can change the result of the game such as a negligible foul at throw-in or a defender grabbing onto another player’s uniform to block him out of instinct; these limitations would prevent over-issuing VAR’s while keeping players from being overly cautious, maintaining the tension and athleticism of football.
Why the sudden rush and so what?
In the modern era, football in particular has been behind in instating modern referral technologies compared to other popular sports. FIFA, the governing body of the sport, has been dogmatically opposed in implementing new technologies to maintain the “human touch” of football, according to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2002. Blatter also added that he would ensure no new technologies would be introduced as long as he is in charge (note that he is also the main culprit of the 2015 FIFA scandal, who allegedly embezzled over 60 million euros). Things have obviously changed since Blatter made those statements, and FIFA should and thankfully have been implementing new technologies like VAR, ushering football into the 21st century.
Looking at the 2012 Olympics in London, for example, the World Taekwondo Foundation (WTF) has embraced a new technology called the Protective Scoring System (PSS), in which competitors would wear sensor-equipped gears that would enable electronic sensors to measure the impact of the strike delivered and automatically record points for those strikes. In tennis, starting from its first test trial in 2004, ITF (International Tennis Federation) has mandated the usage of Hawk-Eye technology, which helps umpires review contested line calls by providing instant video imaging from a variety of angles. It took the same technology 10 years to be first implemented in football competitions. As of now, football is undoubtedly the most common and popular sport with an estimated 4 billion global followers. Yet, in order to maintain this dominant relevance and popularity in the looming fifth industrial revolution, soccer may have to become more sensitive to technology and VAR is only the beginning.
VAR indubitably is a double-edged sword for the sport as it is still a new technology with very little trial. If you view football as a form of entertainment and enjoy the rugged athleticism, unpredictability, and human-error aspect of the sport, you probably would agree with Shearer and think that VAR is sh*t. For those who like the increased accuracy in calls and consequently a heightened sense of sportsmanship, VAR seems to be a football revolution. Yet one thing is clear, which that only time would answer the debate: Will VAR save or kill football?