VAR technologies digitize the rules of football but at what cost?
3 March 2019, PSG vs. Manchester United: We are deep into injury time. United desperately need a goal, or they crash out of Europe’s elite cup competition. Their young right-back, Dalot, makes a speculative effort from outside the box. The ball is deflected by a PSG defender, and a corner is given. A minute passes. The teams are ready, but the referee is not. Speaking into his microphone, he moves toward a TV screen at the dugout. After another minute of intense deliberation, he signals the VAR (video assistant referee) gesture and awards United a penalty. The players and the fans are astounded – Dalot’s shot had skimmed the arm of the PSG defender who was inside the penalty box. Hand-ball. In the 94th minute of the match, Marcus Rashford converts the penalty and United qualify to the next round. United’s fans and players are elated. PSG’s fans and players, miserable. Everyone else: Should the goal stand? Was it fair? Does that matter? The only thing that is certain is that it was controversial.
This season marked the introduction of VAR or the video-assisted referee to the Champions League. The French, German, American and Italian leagues have already debuted this technology and most recently the world’s most-watched league, the English Premier League, has followed suit this season of football. However, this has not come without resistance.
Technology and football have had a long, complex relationship. First, technology revolutionized the ball: we went from a dense, bladder-based ball to the iconic polymer-based, speedy, and water resistant black and white Telstar. Then, shoes became more aerodynamic. Throughout the 1960s, live TV made football accessible and changed the way we think about fans and fan culture. Later, in the 1990s, the Premier League was formed, paving the way for a new era of sports broadcasting. In 2019, we stand at the onset of another game-changing revolution at the intersection of technology and football: the introduction of the video-assisted referee.
So what is VAR and what does it entail? Practically, it instates an off-field referee who has access to the live feed of all cameras. If the off-field referee watches a replay (perhaps, enhanced via multiple angles) and believes that the on-field referee made a “clear and obvious error,” the off-field referee can request that the on-field referee overturn their decision or simply request a replay on a TV screen. Across most implementations, VAR aims to detect and overturn the on-field referee’s “clear and obvious” errors with regard to goals, penalty decisions, red cards, and mistaken identity issues.
This sounds good. Football becomes fairer. Everyone wins.
Or do they?
VAR has faced a large amount of criticism by fans, players, coaches, and pundits. The critical argument against VAR questions whether there is something more important than fairness of the game. In particular, it is claimed that VAR diminishes fan experience. Consider another high-profile match in the Champions League this year: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspurs. Again, we are deep into injury time, and the Manchester club needs one goal to win. However, VAR does not favor the city of Manchester this time. Raheem Sterling hits the ball, and it nestles in the back of the net to take Manchester City through to the semi-finals. There’s pandemonium in the stands. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the 24-year-old, the team, and the fans. But the referee is tuned into his earpiece. Alas, in the play that led to the goal, one of the players was off-side. Nearly two minutes after the ball went past the goal line, the goal is disallowed. Manchester City does not proceed to the next round. Fans fill stadiums, wake up at strange hours and travel across nations to support their teams for that one moment: their team’s goal, the moment when the ball hits the net. The goal defines the game. And hence, transitioning from this state of euphoria to the “no-goal” state decimates the experience of City’s fans.
But at the same time, VAR did enhance the experience of the Spurs fan. All hope was lost and then came VAR, the savior. VAR can be kind to you. But even if the decision is in your favor, the referee’s deliberation process can take from two minutes to sometimes even, seven minutes. Fluidity and fast-paced action are the key features of football that differentiate it from other ball sports. VAR is slow and in complete opposition to this aspect of football.
Furthermore, the fan experience does not end with the match. Across decades, the cliche “Monday-morning pub debate” centered on the controversial decisions made during the weekend: Was Mata offside? Was Rose’s handball intentional? Did Salah dive? If everything is cut and dry and determined to be accurate while the match is going on via VAR, these debates may cease to exist in their current form, destroying a quintessential component of the fan experience for so many. With that said, VAR does add its own drama and intricacies to the football-watching experience: through this seasons’ eliminators, all stakeholders of football have debated VAR on TV and Twitter, and VAR drama has soundly entered the Monday-morning pub debate. Perhaps, the post-VAR era will eventually re-calibrate both the nature of our debates and the match-watching experience. But for now, there still exists a striking trade-off between complete fairness and the fan’s match and post-match experience. What can VAR do to find a balance? Looking at VAR’s older cousin might provide insights.
VAR is not the first assisted refereeing technology to have created such a fuss. Before VAR, came goal-line technology (GLT). Using cameras on top of the goal, GLT simply determines whether the ball crossed the goal-line or not and informs the on-field referee within a second. Given this short duration, GLT is fairly popular amongst all leagues. But it was not always like this. Before its official release, pundits and fans were skeptical. Initial estimates suggested that GLT would take anywhere from five seconds to five minutes to determine whether it was a goal or not. Through off-field innovation in both communication systems, ball design, and computer vision, the industry has been able to reduce the deliberation to nearly a one-tenth of a second. To both maintain the fairness of the game, and not completely degrade the fan experience, VAR must mature and reduce deliberation time – this cannot happen off the field.
Determining an offside, a handball, a dive or a foul is more complicated than what GLT does. In other words, the rules that GLT upholds are precise and well-defined. As a recent example, consider the City vs. Spurs Champions League eliminator. Spurs have been awarded a corner. The ball is whipped in, and Fernando Llorente, a striker for Spurs, hits it in. However, in the process, it first hits his arm and then his waist. City players demand hand-ball. But was it? Current rules state that hand-ball occurs when a player: “deliberately handles the ball when in play.” Was Fernando’s action deliberate? How can you prove deliberateness? Perhaps, inspired by earlier incidents of similar nature, The International Football Association Board revised the hand-ball rule to include the situation when “a player gains control/possession of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then scores, or creates a goal-scoring opportunity.” Unfortunately, for City, this rule goes into effect on June 1.
Without VAR, such edge-cases that illustrate the imprecise nature of football rules occurred. However, they could be easily disregarded by assuming that the on-field referee just didn’t see the foul; if they had, they would’ve given it. Due to VAR, these edge-cases are amplified and literally put on the big screen. They are thoroughly discussed and hopefully, these cases guide the revision of football rules. In fact, as justification for the new rule, the International Football Association Board stated that “Greater clarity is needed for handball, especially on those occasions when ‘nondeliberate’ handball is an offence.”
Hence, using VAR in play is crucial as it is this process of hits and misses that provides us with the training data to develop football rules and VAR itself. There is a bit of a chicken-egg problem here: we cannot have mature VAR until we adopt it, but we do not wish to adopt VAR until it is mature.
Integrating VAR into the game of football will be a slow process, changing far more than the game itself, but it is a step in the right direction. Yes, some decisions will take time. Some goals will be overturned. Nights will be ruined. But in the long run, we can be optimistic that VAR will eventually obtain consistency and speed, and optimize both the fairness and the spectating experience of the beautiful game. VAR will only truly take hold once the fan culture allows it to, and it will be a fascinating process to watch play out in the coming years.