The technology was brought in to rid the game of controversial decisions, but its introduction has arguably caused more controversies than it has helped solve.
Football, as a game, has had a long and illustrious history. There have been documentations of sports similar to football in ancient Greece and China. But the sport as we know it today came into existence only during the nineteenth century in Great Britain. In 1863, the first football association was formed in England. Several other governing and rule-making bodies have come up since, with their aim to improve the quality of the sport. The ‘Laws of the Game’ were set down in London. The rules, however, continued to change and take shape over the years. The constant test of these rules’ flexibility has seen football go through a lot of changes over time.
One example of such a rule that has been through a lot of changes is the offside rule. The Sheffield rules stated that there should be at least one defender between the attacker and the goalkeeper to prevent offside, whereas the Cambridge rule stated that there should be at least three defenders.
Hence there was a lot of confusion and misunderstandings regarding the offside rule. The FA has finally come up with a standard rule which checks the last defender’s positioning while an attacker released the ball. Yet, even after all these changes, it has often been very hazardous for the naked eye to catch intricate movements that have led to huge controversies.
To encounter such and many other controversies, the governing body has come with technologies such as VAR or Video Assistant Referees. The VAR reviews the decisions made by the field referees.
After several trials and practices, the system was finally included in the ‘Laws of the Game’ only in 2018. The target was to set up a system that does not interfere with the game directly, yet yields proper judgment as and when required to benefit the players and the officials. This can be clearly understood from its introductory statement, I.e., ‘Minimal interference, maximum benefit’.
The VAR seeks to provide a way to grab the “clear and obvious errors” and “serious missed incidents”, and to correct them. The VAR team is stationed in the Video Operation Room (VOR), from where they look into all the decisions made by the on-field referees.
The VOR has sets of monitors installed to look at any given situation from a varied range of angles, so as to calculate if the given decision is right or wrong accurately. If the VAR checks a situation and finds no problems with it, the same information is passed on through to the referees. This type of check is known as a silent check and can be performed even without stopping the game.
In other cases, the VAR might delay the game as it looks for possible mistakes in a given set of play. The referee may delay the start of play while the check is going on.
If VAR identifies a clear mistake, there can be three possible scenarios. The referee can either choose to disregard the decision made by VAR, or he can alter his own decision based on the review provided by the VAR. In the third scenario, the referee might go for an On-field Review (OFR). In this process, the referee is allowed to use a monitor that replays the given situation at various speeds and from multiple angles. He can hence take his own decision after the detailed analysis.
VAR was first conceptualized by the Royal Netherland Football Association in the early 2010s. As a result, it was first tried out in Everdise, the first division of Dutch football. After the successful implementation and fruitful outcomes, it was petitioned to be included in the Laws of the Game. The first international match to feature VAR was a friendly played between France and Italy.
The proper incorporation of VAR happened when Australia’s A-League decided to use VAR in all their matches in 2017. The system caught the attention of the European football fraternity when it was introduced in the Bundesliga and Serie-A simultaneously in the 2017–18 season. Further success followed as the English Premier League adopted VAR the following season. Europe’s biggest club competition in the form of the UEFA Champions League has also started using VAR since the latter stages of the 2018–19 season.
The most significant success for VAR came when Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) approved it to be used in the FIFA World Cup 2018. A staggering figure of 335 was the number of times VAR was called upon during the WC. As a result, the WC was given the status of one of the cleanest WCs ever, with as few as just four red cards being awarded in the entire tournament. To prepare for the WC, the first training center was set up during the ear;y parts of 2018 in Italy, alongside using VAR in the Confederations Cup of 2017.
The primary purpose of VAR is to assist the referee in determining whether there has been an infringement or not. The violation may be of various kinds, some more serious than others. It helps the referees to identify the obvious mistakes as well as identifying the tightest of decisions that could easily be overlooked by the human eye at the fast pace at which the modern-day game is played. These decisions can be broadly classified into four different categories, with each of them owing equal importance.
The first of those cases are where VAR decides if a Goal should be awarded or not. There can be numerous factors affecting this decision. To list out some of the points considered, the VAR checks if the ball crossed the entire width of the goal line. It also checks if the ball went out of the play before the goal was scored, or if there was any possibility of an offside call. It also checks for infringements on the part of the attacker on his way to score the goal or any encroachment when a penalty kick is taken. The second case tests if the awarded penalty decision was justified or not, or whether a legitimate penalty has not been granted. For this, VAR checks both for handballs and fouls during the run of play.
The third case checks if any event is worthy of a straight red card or not. A red card may be awarded not only on the basis of a rash foul but also based on misconduct, indecency, racial abuse, or any kind of bad conduct towards the opposition or the referees. VAR may also alter the referee’s decision to present a straight red card, and can turn it into a yellow at the referee’s discretion. In the fourth case, VAR checks for mistaken identity. This can happen if a card is issued to the wrong player. VAR alerts the referee about his potential mistake.
One of the most iconic incidents of wrong decision making on the part of the referee in football history shall be Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany in the round of 16 of the 2010 WC. England seemed to be making a comeback from 2–0 down when they scored one for themselves. Minutes later, Lampard’s shot hit the underside of the crossbar and dropped behind the goal line, only to bounce back outside. Replays confirmed the goal being legitimate, but the referee had already waved play on. Hence England was robbed of a goal, and the chance to make a comeback into the match. VAR could have alerted the referee about his mistake, and the goal would have stood.
Another such example is when Thiery Henry handled the ball for France against Ireland in a WC qualifier match for the WC as mentioned earlier. VAR could have been beneficial in spotting these incidents and hence could have altered huge results in the history of the game. There are many such incidents where VAR could have been of the utmost help.
VAR has substantially helped to minimize the controversies regarding contentious or game-changing decisions. For the introductory campaign, VAR detected 18 mistakes in 90 matches of the 2017–18 Bundesliga season. But these decisions led to significant delays in the flow of the game. Even for these decisions to work, the communication lines between the stadium and the VAR headquarters at Cologne failed many times during the season. Even worse, the offside lines could not be superimposed on the field of play. Hence, the VAR could not provide successful assistance to the referees. There have even been instances where VAR should have stepped in but did not. This has led to a lack of trust among the players and supporters alike. Also, there have been certain controversies regarding the basic rules governing VAR. This has led to a lack of transparency, which has not helped gain the trust of the football fraternity. Unlike cricket or tennis, the crowd does not get to see the replays which the referees consider during VAR, which is yet another reason for VAR being questioned.
There have been incidents where the decisions made by VAR have been questionable. An example of one such incident is when Ajax played Real Madrid in the champions league. The ball seemed to have gone out of play before Ajax scored a goal. On review, VAR let the goal stand, yet the replays clearly showed that the ball had crossed the line. There have been similar incidents where VAR has left teams fuming over simple decisions.
On the other hand, VAR has indeed been beneficial in certain situations. According to FIFA, the accuracy of the decisions made by this technology is at around 93–98%. To site a few critical examples, one might speak of the La Liga match in which Barcelona faced Girona. The referee waved play on after a tackle by the Barcelona defender. VAR pulled the game back and gave the decision that the player should be sent off. This altered the course of the game. Another such incident was during the Round of 16 Champions League match between Porto and Roma. Roma player made a vital tackle inside his penalty box, deep into extra time. The referee did not consider it to be a penalty, yet altered his decision on the suggestion of VAR. The decision turned out to be absolutely spot-on and sent Porto into the Quarter Finals. But the most important decision that VAR made was in the Semi-Finals of the Champions League in a match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs. The game was tied at four goals each during the final minutes. Aguero received a ball and passed it on to Sterling, who made it five for City. The players were busy celebrating when VAR pointed out that Aguero was in an offside position when he received the ball. Hence the goal was disallowed, and Spurs went through on the away goals rule. Based on the overall outcome, it can be said that VAR has helped the referees in making tough decisions.
VAR has both been praised as well as criticized by footballers and fans alike. Some have been in favor of the use of technology to improve the standards of refereeing. In contrast, others have been of the opinion that VAR is not sufficiently accurate and manipulative. Former players like John Arne Riise have been of the opinion that VAR is a brilliant addition and the future of the game. Others think that VAR should only have an opinion about the incident. It is the on-field referee who should be taking the final call. Some suggested that VAR has failed to get rid of the inconsistencies completely.
Former Spain international, Luis Garcia said that VAR was making the players lose their focus. They are now more concerned about the referee’s decision, rather than their own game. Certain FIFA officials have suggested that VAR has managed to reduce the post-incident controversies.
There have been incidents where questions have been raised on whether VAR should interfere in a specific situation or not. Some believe that VAR should not interfere as long as not asked for. Former Olympic Gold medalist Samantha Quek pointed out that the players have made it a habit to appeal to the referee for VAR even in trivial matters.
This has hindered the flow of the game. Players like Lionel Messi have publicly spoken against VAR when he felt that the technology was being manipulative when Argentina lost to Brazil in the semifinal of the Copa America. Some have even suggested the use of Artificial Intelligence for VAR to reduce human errors.
VAR has managed to leave players both baffled and satisfied. It has failed to win over the entire mass. There are still parts of the technology that are behind the smoke, and as a consequence, is often criticized. It has definitely taken a lot of pressure off the on-field referee’s shoulder. But it has also taken away some of his powers to act on his own discretion.
VAR shows that despite the use of high-end modern technologies, there can still be errors. It has undoubtedly made the game a lot fairer, but it has also made the game a lot slower. The frequent stoppages in play have taken away some of the game’s charm. These gaps in play have frustrated players and fans alike. The removal of the uncertainty factor has managed to take away some flare. The lack of pace and flamboyance may, in turn, affect the game’s well being. As a renowned journalist very rightly said, “Football is getting fairer and slower — and that’s a problem”.
Written by:- Chandrangshu Deb