They Think it’s All O-VAR

Opinion

It’s the most talked about change to the rules since the Bosman rule or the backpass rule. Many were calling for football to make more use of technology as other sports have done, and it followed the rather meek introduction of goal-line technology.

Since goal-line technology has been brought in there are so few instances of it being required, you could almost question whether it was needed, but its supporters will point to the fact it is never wrong and could potentially be the difference between promotion and relegation or may even decide the winner of a cup final.

But the technology which is getting everyone talking is VAR, or Video Assistant Referees.

FIFA has just announced its intention to use the system for the upcoming World Cup, in Russia. Many are complaining it still needs tweaking, needs further testing and it’s hard to disagree. There are suggestions you shouldn’t use as high profile a tournament to continue testing as the World Cup. It does smack of gimmickry, but perhaps it’s more an indication of the change in politics at the head of the sport’s governing body. Previous “Grande Fromage”, Sepp Blatter was continually reluctant to accept goal-line technology until he finally relented and it was introduced for the World Club Cup in December 2012.

There is still the argument goal-line technology is only used in the top matches, so a goal can be given if it’s scored in the Premier League, but not if it’s in the Championship. Some leagues are not having it due to the cost, which given football seems awash with money is an odd view if it’s so good.

VAR is a huge change, yet it still is only likely to be involved in certain games rather than all of them. Which again brings an inequality to the decisions. Added to the confusion over when decisions can be viewed, this doesn’t quite provide the utopia many had hoped for. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body which determines the laws of the game, says VAR is only to be used “to correct clear errors and for missed serious incidents” in “match-changing situations”. Only the referee on the pitch can initiate a review and this is where a lot of confusion begins.

One argument against VAR, and much of the same argument given against goal-line technology, is it takes away the debating part of football which fans across the world enjoy so much. We’ve only had VAR used in FA Cup matches and yet every single time there has been more debate about it than we seemed to have with just referees making decisions. So I guess you could argue it hasn’t taken debate out of the game, although much of it now surrounds whether the system is any good or not.

My first view of it was the FA Cup match at Anfield between Liverpool and West Brom. One aspect of that match which amused me was how after a decision was made by VAR, the players still pestered the referee to get him to change the decision! Perhaps old habits die hard.

What has been blindingly apparent from the whole experiment is how little the fans in the stadium know about how it is working. They are not told when it’s been called for, they don’t get to see any of the replays and they don’t hear what the VAR is relaying to the ref on the ground. Of course, those watching on television don’t always know what it’s been called for as if it’s something clandestine only for the referees and those on a “need to know basis”.

CRICKET AND OTHER SPORTS

I remember when umpire reviews were brought into cricket. At the very beginning all the Third Umpire (football’s VAR) was able to see was the trajectory of the ball and where it hit the batsman. He then had to guess where it may have gone on after that if it hadn’t hit him. It was a joke and very soon ridiculed into a change. But for years the authorities still only gave tv audience the benefit of knowing what was going on. I’ve been in grounds where you have a big screen showing replays for every ball yet when the Third Umpire was adjudicating you weren’t allowed to see it. In fact, I’ve spent £10-£20 in petrol, £5 parking and then £60-£70 for my seat to discover I would have been far better informed had I stayed at home.

Now, thankfully, the ICC (cricket’s equivalent of FIFA) has relented and those in the ground are able to watch replays and hear the Third Umpire.

FIFA has said they will have big screens in each World Cup match so those in the ground can see what’s going on but at the moment even those watching on television don’t ever get to hear the VAR.

Some have given the view it’s technology so bring it on, it can’t hurt can it? But take a look around you, not all technology is good. But one things for certain, technology is much like science, you never go back. Once invented and introduced you never uninvent, you just change and add to it. So if it’s a poor idea from the start you never go back and debate that, it’s just added to or relaunched in the blind belief it will work. Society being what it is these days you’re considered a dinosaur if you reject it, whereas what you may well be arguing for is bad technology is bad however you dress it up. Cricket will never get rid of umpire reviews now, mainly because its supporters will complain vociferously the moment an umpire makes the wrong decision.

But then that’s the point with this sort of thing. They never point to the number of times a review has proven the umpire correct, they just settle on the ones he got wrong. Much like a stopped clock. They’ll point to the fact it shows the correct time twice a day, yet for the other 1,438 minutes it’s wrong.

VAR is different to umpire reviews in cricket in that the players cannot ask for it, which is probably a good thing given how many players immediately put their hands up after the ball bounces off them for a throw. In cricket, players can call for a review but they only get a limited number and lose one each time they’re wrong. There are occasions where an umpire may call for a review for run outs and no balls and these are checking line-based judgements, much like goal-line technology.

Another argument for VAR is the game is so fast these days and you are asking a great deal of officials to be able to make correct decisions all the time when they only get one view. Just listen to summarisers these days. Few of them ever judge a decision first time, preferring to wait until they’ve seen several replays before declaring the referee got it wrong.

You could say cricket, tennis, rugby or American Football are all sports which have successfully introduced the system but one of football’s problems is it is way more fluid. Because you can move the ball forwards and backwards then territory isn’t really that important. The authorities discovered this when they tried to implement a rule where the ball would be moved forward ten yards at a free-kick if the defending side hadn’t retreated quick enough. But it wasn’t long before they realised moving the ball nearer the goal didn’t necessarily give the attacking side the advantage. Sometimes you’re just too close to be able to get the ball up over the wall and down again to hit the net. The other aspect with other sports the decisions are conclusive. It’s either one side of the line or the other, but with football you’re judging fouls and tackles and trying to discover intent. Tackles always look worse in slow motion.

Football isn’t quite as stop-start at the other sports where you can bring the play back to benefit the side you previously penalised.

The other aspect of this is the loss of “the moment”. That’s the moment when a team scores and players and supporters go nuts over it. Just imagine Aguero’s goal in 2012 and the raw excitement and ecstacy which followed. Think back to that and then add in the referee calling for VAR for a suspected foul on one of the QPR defenders in the build up. Utter anti-climax. And that already happens in cricket. You can rarely celebrate the final wicket of a match as you have to wait for the inevitable review. Even if the batsman is bowled out the umpire may call for a review to see if it was a no-ball as they’ve become so reliant on technology they don’t bother calling for them unless there’s a wicket. A lesson football could well do with learning.

PLAYERS

What of the players? They may have to alter the way they play. What I mean is it is now customary for players to play to the whistle and stop once it has been blown, otherwise they’ll be booked. Years ago you’d frequently see players thumping the ball away when the whistle went to try and waste time. Few can forget Dennis Irwin when David Elleray booked him for an alleged offence of kicking the ball away, resulting in a yellow card leading to him missing the 1999 FA Cup Final.

So picture this. A player is clean through on goal with only the keeper to beat. Assistant referee raises his flag for offside and ref blows his whistle. What does the player do?

  1. Does he play on and score, knowing he may be given a yellow card? What if this is a Semi-Final and a card sees him banned for the Final?
  2. Or does he stop, playing to the whistle? Ref then checks the decision with VAR and discovers the player was onside. Then what? You cannot replay the move again as you’d have to have every player in exactly the same position and how do you recreate people running, especially when they’ve had time to recover?

And if he chooses 1) and if subsequently found to be onside then presumably the card is rescinded if the goal is given?

We had a similar example during the recent Liverpool v Newcastle match at Anfield. Liverpool’s Mo Salah was through on goal and was bundled over from behind by Jamaal Lascelles. The referee immediately looked to his assistant who didn’t signal for a foul and so the play went on. Replays showed Lascelles clumsy challenge was a foul and the only debate was whether it was inside the penalty area or not. It was suggested as Liverpool were already cruising with a two-goal lead it didn’t matter for the overall result of the game. But how could we be sure, and why should it matter at what time of the game it is?

PROTECT AUTHORITY OF OFFICIALS

Ultimately I believe the game should protect the authority of the official in charge. In cricket there’s a bias towards the decision originally made by the umpire and players are questioning this with a review. It is irritating when commentators suggest a player “might as well call for a review”, when they miss the fact he is effectively saying the umpire got it wrong and unless he can be 100% certain of that why should he call for a review? Football must maintain this authority otherwise you end up with a scenario we saw in the recent FA Cup replay between Tottenham and Rochdale when referee Paul Tierney seemed to struggle to referee the game due to uncertainty over the system. Subsequently, FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn admitted VAR was wrong to rule out a goal for Tottenham. So where does that leave the system?

It is inevitable the technology will be brought in, there’s too much of a ground swell of support for it. But it is unlikely to be settled any time soon. Referees, of course, may welcome anything which deflects from their performance and complaining about a system is far easier than blaming an individual.

About the Author

Pete Spencer
Just turned 50. Been Supporting Liverpool since 1976 (Paisley's first title). Write a lot about football from days gone by. There's so much available online about football today and over the past twenty years but incidents from the past often get forgotten