Debate featured

Debate – VAR

1. Did football need to move with the times and improve decision making by using technology in the first place? 

Simon Toye: I think VAR was always going to be the next logical (debatable) step. In some form or other it has a position in other sports – rugby, tennis etc. So it was always going to be up for discussion for including it. Especially after the introduction of goal line technology which has been widely well received and is generally considered beneficial to the game and a successful implementation.

James Foster: Yes and no. I know, sitting on the fence already… Football will always have contrasting opinions about results, decisions, players etc, but tech is used in loads of other sports successfully.

Bryan Moore: Football absolutely needed to move with the times by making use of technology. Goal line technology has proved this beyond doubt. In a recent match between Liverpool and Wolves it had seemed that the ball had crossed the line, one quick look at the referee and it was clear it hadn’t, the game moved on and the incident was not mentioned again in commentary or in post-match analysis. 

A quick look at other sports prove how seamless it can be when done correctly. It has transformed rugby, tennis, cricket and also any GAA match played in Croke Park.

Andrew Flint: It’s a no-brainer that technology needed to be brought in. Misty-eyed fans of a different era may bemoan the lack of mystery by using goalline technology, for example, but it is madness to see goals like Pedro Mendes’ for Spurs against Manchester United given when a few seconds would wipe it out. Clubs can see seasons and futures ruined pointlessly.

2. What has been the best part of VAR since its inception? 

ST: Aside from using it to goad opposing fans when they don’t like the result you mean? In all honesty I think we all as fans feel the pain of this technology when it results in such controversial and in some cases ludicrous outcomes. There has been incidences where an overturn has been correct and you would like think that if the technology had been around years ago then certain glaringly obvious fouls or goals would have been caught and punished. Maradona and Henry handballs for instance. 

JF: The giant pauses after a goal… ah wait a minute… it’s hard to think of a highlight in its current format. It has the potential to be a much better tool with only a couple of small tweaks.

BM: For better or for worse, the best part of VAR so far was clearly the Champions League tie between Man City and Spurs. Yes it may have turned the game as a spectacle into a farce, but boy was it exciting, even – especially – for the neutral. 

AF: It has heightened the attention to the rules themselves. The offside rule is the one that frustrates me the most; how many times have we seen myths, inconsistencies and confusion over exactly what the interpretation is?

In reality it is not hard to check the IFAB website for the precise wording of course, but even then the language leaves grey areas. The disparity between the success of VAR in England and other countries, most notably Germany, has also shown the need to learn from beyond the borders of one country. 

3. VAR is received far better in other leagues; why do you think it is getting such a negative reaction in England?

ST: It seems that the way in which VAR is implemented in other countries has been helpful in its infancy. Referees being able to view the screen at pitch side for instance has helped speed up decisions rather than everyone just standing around waiting with no clue what’s going on and the fans getting impatient. I have no earthly idea why this is considered a bad thing in our league! Perhaps fans and media in other countries are just more accepting and understanding of change than we are. It’s possible that we just love a good moan and any form of new technological advances would have been met with widespread cynicism in England. Who knows!

JF: Two reasons stand out for me. The first, the ridiculousness of referees not reviewing the screen themselves. It’s on them, they’re culpable in the publics eyes, they should take ownership. The second is the massive delays. Fans want the passion, the joyous moment of that goal ruining their opponents day and bringing bragging rights to their side of the office. Show the replays on a big screen in the stadium instead of keeping us in the dark!

BM: Firstly, let’s not forget who makes the laws of the games; the IFAB, a body which is made up of the FA, IFA, FAW, SFA and FIFA (ed: the FA, IFA, FAW and SFA have one vote, FIFA has four; any vote requires a three quarters majority). The laws can basically be vetoed by the UK, and what has been most interesting for a fan of British football, but someone who is not British, is the failure for the FA and the Premier League in particular to observe the rules correctly.

The whole basis of VAR has centered on the phrase ‘clear and obvious’. This, in my opinion, has been implemented arseways. It was meant that the video official should only overrule a decision, say an offside, if the player is CLEARLY offside. It was never meant to be an opening to take out the rulers and protractors and measure up Firmino’s armpit.

It has instead been decided that a penalty decision would only be overruled if it was ‘clear and obvious’ that the ref didn’t see it or that his decision was clearly and obviously wrong. This has created a subjectivity to everything, and has seen some clear penalty decisions waved away as the ref appeared to be looking at the incident. 

AF: The lack of transparency in the decision-making process, and a relatively poor level of communication upon its implementation, has massively hampered the reception of VAR. The rules state any part of the body that can play the ball count as offside, and VAR has followed this rigidly to the extent where the original purpose of the law is being forgotten; to deny players gaining an unfair advantage.

On the other hand, the technology is obviously far more accurate than the human eye. It is remarkable how stubborn fans can be in English football. One moment they demand better decisions-making, but the moment that is given to them they complain about how precise it is. 

4. What is the way forward: have patience until people understand VAR better, alter how it is implemented, alter the laws of football to accommodate the technology better, or scrap it altogether?

ST: There is widespread opinion that scrapping it would be a good thing, and that while we didn’t always agree with the referees and assistants on the field and they sometimes got things wrong that it was still preferable to VAR. However, this is the FA (and indeed FIFA) just giving up and admitting it has vastly degraded the sport everyone loves, which is just not an option is it? There must be a serious overhaul in the way it is used.

Fans need to know what’s going on – play the replays on the big screens! Make use of them and make it obvious to everyone what is happening. Maybe then also, the on-field referee can return to having the final say.

If the referee looks up and sees that the player is to all intents and purposes level then he is not offside even if technically his armpit or toe was slightly forward. That offers the best of both worlds – a video assistance as well as a human final decision.

Or bring VAR to the ground. Have the 4th official who is stood at the side anyway watch the action as they would at Stockley Park with constant communication to the referee on the pitch. They can then alert the referee immediately if there is a concern and bring them over or show on the big screen the incident. If the 4th official – who is always qualified to the same level as the match referee – sees no issue with a goal then everything can carry on as it would have previously, before the introduction of VAR. 

The margin for error should probably change in terms of offside too. Graham Souness suggested on Sky Sports that instead of being classed as offside for having any part of you ahead of the defender, reverse it and only be classed as offside if all of you is in front.

In his view, the current system “robs the game of goals” which is the entertaining part of watching football. His suggested method would allow more goals. I see a flaw in that personally in that instead of ridiculous offside calls you would then get ridiculous onside calls where a strikers trailing toe would be placed behind the defender but there was clear daylight between bodies and defenders would claim there isn’t any point in having the offside rule at all in that case.

In any event, there needs to be a review of what constitutes offside. Unless they can create an accurate Hawkeye view – like in tennis or with goal line technology – then an offside call needs to be a human decision by the referee of the game. That’s what they’re there for, otherwise there is very little point having referees and assistants at all. 

JF: I think the above answers this one; make it more accessible for those in the stadium and make sure the referees actually know why they’re giving a decision. Other than that it’s just a time thing. People are reluctant to change, but eventually it always happens, and when you look back you can’t imagine being able to pass the ball back to your keeper…

BM: The way forward is simple: observe the rules, clearly and obviously. If it takes more than one/two replays to determine if a player is offside, then revert to the on pitch call. If a player is clearly fouled in the box, regardless of which way the referee is looking, award a pen.

And for the love of god, use the pitch side monitor for the most difficult decisions. If it takes a bit more time to decide if the foul was inside or outside the box, in the 90th minute of a relegation battle match on week 38, it is probably best the correct call is made regardless of time.

AF: The introduction of VAR has been so clumsily implemented that the damage is almost irreparable in terms of seeing it accepted, but without question it should be kept. There is simply too much riding on matches to ignore a cleaner process of decision making.

What is equally vital, though, is that its purpose is remembered, and that the in-game decision making process is far swifter. To achieve this I think the incidents VAR applies to should be cut to ones that are clear and obvious to decide swiftly.

I honestly think the answer is blindingly simple: if a decision cannot be made within a relatively short time frame – say, 30 seconds from the incident happening (not the game itself being stopped) – then the on-field decision of the referee stands.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

1 comment on “Debate – VAR

  1. David Brown IV

    Goal line tech must stay, certainly. Red card checks for obvious intentional acts of reckless endangerment/violent conduct–like Cantwell’s tackle that VAR decided, incorrectly as usual, to dismiss–yes, keep those (and get them right!). The offside rule just needs to be changed in the direction suggested by Mr. Sounness, but obviously not as far as that: if the attacker’s WAIST is beyond that of the last defender (perhaps if there is daylight between their WAISTS), then the player is offside. The idea of an outstretched leg/TOE keeping an attacker onside is preposterous. Finally, by all means the responsibility of the ultimate decision must fall on the onfield official, provided he takes the action (when advised by VAR) to check the sideline monitor or big screen replays. (Put the replays up for everyone to see during the check. Make VAR accountable for its SUGGESTIONS. Let the onfield referee bear the burden of the final decision–and the blame, should they prove unwilling to overturn their own decisions when they are incorrect. All this is contingent on the folks in the VAR rooms having a clue about what they are supposed to be watching for, which on the basis of their actions to date they clearly do not. Every week of this season has showcased the ineptitude inside those rooms. Everyone agrees on that, and is understandably frustrated and confused in equal measure. Where the rules ARE clear, as with the encroachment rule, VAR is embarrassingly and perplexingly on the nod.

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