VAR you serious?: The ups and downs of new tech in football

Is there any way to fix the mess that is VAR?

For many years, football fans were calling out for a review process to try and eradicate all close off-side calls and soft penalties that had plagued the game for many years. It seemed like all of their prayers were answered with the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR). VARs were trialed as early as 2014 in the Netherlands and was brought into the European top-flight in the 2017-18 season. The idea was that a referee watching the match in a removed location would be able to review clear and obvious failings of the on-field referee. 

The VAR was to exclusively check four categories: goal or no goal, penalty or no penalty, straight red cards and lastly, if a card is mistakenly given to the wrong player. The last one seems excessively niche but many Premier League fans will remember when Andre Marriner mistakenly sent off Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs for a handball committed by Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in 2014. Funny though it seemed at the time, it was a clear indicator of the need for reform within the sport. 

“However, since its introduction, the response to VAR has been less than positive”

After being used successfully in La Liga and Bundesliga, VAR came to England in 2017 during the FA Cup before being fully introduced to the Premier League at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. However, since its introduction, the response to VAR has been less than positive. Most fans have now turned against the new technology due in large part to it being used for enforcing tedious rules as opposed to the big decisions that fans expected. 

One of the major issues is that the VAR is only to intervene in the case of “clear and obvious” errors by the on-field referee. But the VARs don’t seem to have got the memo as they are reluctant to intervene when it comes to big decisions but are quick to call for a review when the players are millimetres offside. There have been many examples of this, notably Heung-min Son’s goal against Leicester being disallowed for being offside by the slightest of margins. There is the argument that it is more important that the decision is correct but what about when the decision is wrong? When Liverpool faced Aston Villa last weekend, Roberto Firmino’s goal was disallowed when he was deemed offside by the touch judge. It was sent to VAR and the video recording showed Firmino to be on-side but even still the decision stood. It is clear to see why the fans are getting frustrated.

“This system completely ignores the lifeblood of the game, which is people who pay their money to go, week in week out, to watch football.”

Another major issue with the introduction of VAR is the lack of communication with the fans during the match. When a decision is being made, there is no video replay on the big screen nor can the fans hear any of the referee’s discussion. The backbone of the football community has always been the fans that turn out every week to support their local team, rain, hail or shine. It seems unfair to provide them with less clarity and information than those watching at home who can see the whole review process. Given the fact that the reviews can be extremely time consuming, fans can be left on the edge of their seat for several minutes before seeing the decision, with no context or explanation. On Match of the Day, Mark Chapman said: “this system completely ignores the lifeblood of the game, which is people who pay their money to go, week in week out, to watch football. They’re being treated like idiots!”

Such complaints have resulted in many comparisons with rugby, which uses similar technology through the position of television match official (TMO). When a decision is referred to the TMO, it is at the discretion of the referee to start a review. The referee is also at liberty to ask the TMO a specific question which can broaden or limit the scope of their review. However, most reviews are done on the big screen so that everyone on the ground can see replays of the incident in question and while one can’t necessarily hear the referee, the hand gestures used by the referee can clearly indicate what the issue at play was. Also, the clock is stopped during reviews meaning that it doesn’t feel like you’re losing time from the game. It seems bizarre that the introduction of VAR to football, a game with significantly fewer rules, would be less effective than the TMO technology.

While VAR has been used correctly on a few occasions, the amount of times they have got a decision wrong far outweighs its usefulness. But this may not always be the fault of the VARs themselves. Many supporters have been annoyed at the amount of penalties given this season for accidental handball. Previously, when the ball would hit a hand, a penalty was only to be awarded if it was clear that they had moved their arm deliberately to put it in the path of the ball. However, rule changes made by FIFA have altered it so that any hand-to-ball contact is going to result in a penalty. And as this is the current rule, VAR have been quick to point out any time the ball has hit a hand in order to award a penalty. By the letter of the law, that decision would be entirely correct but given the unrealistic expectations set by the rules, such verdicts are met with much derision. But in these cases, the party at fault is not the VAR, though it is generally the target of supporters’ anger. The issue is at the higher level with FIFA setting rules for the game which are ineffective and unfair in practice. 

“Any adaptation to the technology needs to cater for the fans’ desire to watch the game they love.”

One has to hope that there is a future for VAR in football. The premise is strong and definitely required to enhance correct decision making in the sport. However, as it stands the technology and the people using it are simply incompetent. The use of VARs has had the adverse effect, increasing fans’ ire at poor decision making. Going forward, it needs to be clear with VARs when they can intervene and on-field referees need to be confident in their own decision making. A balance needs to be struck but most importantly, any adaptation to the technology needs to cater for the fans’ desire to watch the game they love.

Conor Doyle

Conor Doyle is the current Sport Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.