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Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of the God in the 1986 World Cup. Thierry Henry’s handball during the 2010 World Cup playoffs against Ireland. Kieran Gibbs was mistaken for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, resulting in Gibbs direct red card. These are a few examples of clear refereeing errors, where VAR or Video Assistant Referee could help correct the initial decision. Why (or not) does soccer need it? Is VAR even good for soccer? Does this only bring more problems to the game? These are the questions this article is trying to find an answer to.
Is VAR Good for Soccer?
In theory, VAR should save soccer by eliminating all its flaws and incorrect refereeing. On paper, this sounds great. Also, there are reasons why VAR amplifies the problems already present. In the following, I give my opinion on why VAR is good and bad for soccer.
Why VAR is Good for Soccer
There are plenty of reasons why VAR has become an essential part of soccer. First, help the human eye for offsides. While humans are good at many things, laser sighting is not one of them. The point here is that a soccer pitch is well over 50 yards wide. Identifying if the attacking player is in an offside position or not could come down a few inches. Deciding to raise the flag has a risk in a close situation of it being wrong. But the media and fans do not care that humans are not being inch-perfect. They only care about correct decisions. Otherwise, an assistant referee is not good at the job. In this case, VAR can help a lot of nerve cells by overturning the initial decision.
Second, increased accuracy. Referees before the VAR were reliable in making the correct decision. Yet, the amount of errors sort of forced FIFA’s hand. VAR had its first major test at the 2018 World Cup. After 48 group stage matches played, Pierluigi Collina hailed its success. In his terms, it was 99.3% accuracy of all decisions made, where VAR analyzed 335 incidents. Pretty good, right? It is, and there is almost no room to improve, as complete perfection is impossible. Of course, these numbers come with some skepticism, as FIFA is not proven to be very trustworthy in the past. But the use of the VAR has also led to a dramatic increase in penalty kicks and no goal decisions given due to offside. Most of them are correct as well. In that context, VAR has proven to increase accuracy. Or at least the belief in it.
Third, challenge the aspect of diving in the 18-yard box. When there is a lot on the line, (male) soccer players are willing to use every trick under their sleeves. To gain any sort of advantage over their opponents. Most of them are occurring inside the 18-yard box to get a penalty kick. Since penalty kicks are the easiest way in a match to score, the incentive is there. As VAR can challenge the decision to give a penalty was correct or not, it helps root out the acting from soccer. Another question is to what extent. Even so, players are aware of this, and my opinion is that diving inside the box has reduced.
Why VAR is Bad for Soccer
First, VAR is known as the joy killer. VAR checks every goal scored, bringing out one of its biggest problems. The speed of applying a rule. The most common instances are goals scored from an onside position at first. Someone scores and teammates manage to celebrate this with the scorer. Then VAR says it was offside, canceling the goal. Leaving many frustrated, followed by condemnation of the technology. To some extent, it is upsetting, because VAR is not fast enough to stop the celebrations. That kind of mood swings (from celebratory to frustrated) can have consequences. A good example is Patrick Bamford’s goal against Crystal Palace (Leeds United), which was ruled offside because of his armpit. The media criticized this decision using words like a farce, joke, and robbery. Not only disallowed goals have experienced this circus. Giving penalty kicks for soft fouls is another example here.
The second problem is the cost of VAR. As this is with almost every technology, maintenance of it is the key. Regardless, nothing comes free, including VAR. The cost of video technology is most likely to be seven figures. While this is pocket money for the big leagues of Europe and richer countries like the USA, Japan, and China, it’s still almost impossible to make VAR globally used.
So, money is a limiting factor in many regions on the Earth when it comes to implementing soccer-saving technology. Of course, there is no point in using cameras in every soccer match. But what roof organizations like FIFA and UEFA could do then? Well, the least they can do is promote VAR in professional soccer more. Another option is to develop a less costly version of such technology (reportedly in progress).
VAR assisted in giving a penalty kick. Source: GettyImages
The third problem is the application of the VAR. Technology or not, there is a human factor to it. With all the computers and screens, a person is using it. While there are clear guidelines for before mentioned instances, interpretation is another story. In theory, interpreting means acting as a bridge between observation and application.
While on paper this sounds good, it has proven more than enough to be shaky at times. What is deliberate handball? To what margin of error can one draw offside lines? What is reckless play or serious foul? These are some of the questions which do not have a single and direct answer. Only referees know them. Thus, the application varies wide when it comes to VAR-assisted decisions.
That leads to creating confusion, opposing the core of adopting video assistance in the first place. Furthermore, sometimes VAR leaves an impression of it being the referee instead. Then I can ask the question, who makes and changes decisions here?
Can the Referee Change the Decision with VAR in Soccer?
Yes and no. By default, a referee can consult with his assistants on the sidelines but does not have to. Regardless, once the referee makes the decision, it can’t be changed. Yet, this comes with a caveat. Referees can overturn an assistant’s decision if it is necessary. One example is the Northern Ireland – Estonia match (the Euro 2012 qualifiers). In short, the assistant gave offside against Estonia, but the referee overturned it. This resulted in a goal scored by Estonia, winning the match 2-1.
A similar principle applies to decisions where review is necessary. VAR is also an assistant to the referee, meaning the referee can overturn VAR. Regardless of whether VAR suggests otherwise. There are also many cases where so-called serious errors or missed incidents happen. This almost always leads to referees changing their decision but also bringing out the emotional people.
Many people think that VAR is the main figure, not the referee itself. To be clear, that is not true. However, there are compelling arguments why VAR decides the matches. Although, these points mainly rely on the narrative of match-altering incidents. Therefore, I am assuming that the basis of VAR is emotions rather than rationale. But the final decision is made by the referee on the pitch.
What is the History of VAR in Soccer?
To give some context, I go back to the 2000s, when a debate about goal-line technology gained momentum. Though not being part of VAR, it played an important role. For the first time, the possible use of technology to assist referees was more than an illusion. Yet, the then-president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, was against it. At the same time, refereeing errors kept piling up.
FIFA 2010 World Cup is where Blatter changed his position. Behind it was Frank Lampard’s shot against Germany during the Round of 16. The ball crossed the line, but no goal. As a result, in July 2011, FIFA started the testing process of the goal-line technology. In July 2012, IFAB (International Football Association Board) approved the goal-line technology in competitive matches. As soon as one problem falls, another one rises.
Goal-line technology has proven to be successful because there is no gap if a ball has crossed the line or not. But issues of game-changing decisions remained. Penalties, red cards, and offsides all impact the course of the match. Here is where VAR comes in. The mission of Refereeing 2.0 started in the early 2010s under the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB).
So you could say that Dutch football was a guinea pig of VAR technology. Yet, it once again met the resistance of Sepp Blatter. He stated that using technology kills the romantic part of the game. In reality, he wanted soccer to get more attention. No matter if it was positive or not. Then FIFA’s corruption scandal forced Blatter to resign from the presidency in 2015. His successor, Gianni Infantino, was pro-VAR. I could say that the scandal saved the project. Otherwise, FIFA likely had voted against the project going further. In 2016, when VAR testing began, it gained popularity in top competitions globally. By 2021, IFAB wrote the VAR into the Laws of the Game.
What is VAR in Soccer
Video Assistant Referee is a match official who has access to match footage to assist the referee with serious missed incidents or explicit and obvious errors. These incidences and mistakes relate to four broader cases when using VAR are allowed:
- Goal/no goal (offside, ball out of bounds…)
- Penalty kick/no penalty kick (in or out of the box, deliberate handball…)
- Direct red cards (but not second yellow cards)
- Mistaken identities (Gibbs-no Gibbs incidents)
Referee checking the VAR. Source: DepositPhotos.
These use cases mentioned above are described in detail in the Laws of the Game, but I’ll be brief on what VAR can do. VAR protects referees officiating a match and increases their accuracy of correct application. But, VAR can assist only during cases that are match-altering, as mentioned above. Here is where refereeing errors are catching the public eye the most. Ungiven goals and penalty kicks misjudged offsides or yellow cards. We all have seen how these errors have made the media headlines. But these errors also become a talking point for the players involved in it, for example, the infamous phantom goal of Stefan Kiessling. Goal-line technology would have been short-handed as the actual shot was off-target (sidenote: Bundesliga did not use goal-line tech at the time of Kiessling’s goal).
While the debate continues if VAR is a good or bad thing, it is necessary for soccer. Why? You might ask. In simplest terms, nothing is perfect in this world, including the technology used in soccer. To elaborate, I say part of the fans and media keep criticizing, no matter what. If VAR wouldn’t be here today, the media and fans would go crazy over referee errors. Leading to demands of bringing in video reviews because it saves soccer. Instead, we see outbursts of misjudged or time-consuming decisions. Meaning, that there is room for improvement.
To give VAR credit, it has gained a grip on the game. Major competitions have adopted the technology, expanding further in the 2022-23 season. Also, youth and female competitions are willing to start using the VAR. I see this as technology earning the trust, despite the criticism received. Sure it is expensive for the leagues, which aren’t established and wealthy, leaving VAR affordable for the better part of soccer. But the question remains. Is VAR good for soccer? I used to be against it myself because of technological intervention. Yet, after seeing VAR in action for a few years, I can say that it is good for soccer because the amount of errors is going down. Though in some instances, VAR is trying too hard. Regardless, the pros outweigh the cons.