The future seems inevitable; video technology is set to play an integral part in football for years to come. FIFA have announced the roll-out of their Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR) system at next year's World Cup in Russia, off the back of a trial run at this summer’s Confederations Cup. The testing process has been going on behind the scenes for some time now, but over the last 6 months it’s fully taken flight. A version of which had been trialed at December’s Club World Cup, alongside one off friendly internationals, before Australia became the first “beneficiaries” of the new technology for the latter part of their domestic league program.
With a number of leagues queuing up for the privilege, the German Bundesliga, Saudi Pro League and Major League Soccer will all adopt the system later this year, the feeling is broadly positive for the technology, coming off the back of the highly successful Goal Line Technology (GLT) brought in across many leagues and tournaments, including the English Premier League, 2014’s World Cup and this year’s UEFA Champions League final.
The VAR system clearly differs however from GLT, as it involves less defined decisions, made by a human watching a screen, rather than a black or white decision determining whether a ball has crossed the line or not. The VAR system, which has gone through many trials with different implementations has been trimmed down to exclusively assess the following criteria; 1. Goals, 2. Penalty decisions, 3. Red card incidents & 4. Mistaken identity..
Each criteria (less so to a degree on the final point) has an element of opinion based to it, demonstrated in almost every decision its deployed, which has left me hesitant to view this system as the right direction for football. To my surprise I’m significantly in the minority, with a huge clamour from clubs, referees, pundits and fans for an extra pair of eyes when it comes to match defining decisions. In the short time I’ve experienced the technology through observing it at the Club World Cup and in the latter stages of the A-League, I’ve remained unconvinced that clarity can be provided on a regular basis and in some cases it can make tensions worse, with four shortcomings coming to mind when looking to implement this method going forward.
The area which I believe is the strongest case against VAR technology is that decisions at the end of the day are based on opinions. Even the most obvious calls are still opinions, even if they are roundly agreed with. In the initial stages of planning behind the VAR, examples of clear offsides, atrocious dives and obvious handballs will have been pointed to as the very examples why the VAR system needs to be introduced, effectively to irradiate “the howlers.”
But the VAR calls sadly can't and don’t stop there. Even in it’s infancy, the VAR got embroiled in decisions that even months after the event can be interpreted differently by different viewers. The first call made in a FIFA regulated match, at the Club World Cup between Kashima Antlers and Atletico Nacional brought up plenty of question marks. The call was made that a penalty was to be awarded to the Japanese side, despite strong suggestions that that player involved (Daigo Nishi) was offside and possibly inflicted a foul on his marker in the lead up the incident.
Opinions were split, some pointed to a poorly implemented offside rule, as the referee interpreted that the offending player wasn’t active. Some pointed to the initial infringement that should’ve resulted in a free kick the other way (something not under the VAR remit). While some agreed with the referee, in that it was a penalty to Kashima. All opinions are valid, but the key to the matter is that the VAR’s debut decision wasn’t nearly as clear cut as FIFA would’ve hoped for.
The latest scenario occurred this last weekend in the A-League Final Series, where Sydney FC took on Perth Glory. Sydney's second goal, scored by Jordy Buijs, was initially ruled out for offside, as his colleague Bobo was adjudged to be interfering in an offside position despite not touching the ball. After a mellay of frustration and confusion, the referee went to the VAR, who overturned the decision, concluding Bobo wasn’t interfering with play. In real time, this left plenty puzzled at what had just happened, leaving two questions; what was the initial call? And why was it overturned?
The scenario was the greyest of greys which essentially came down to whether you thought the defender (Glory's Dino Djulbic) would’ve made up a distance of ground if he wasn’t impeded by the Sydney striker. The commentating team at the time thought he would have (which I agree with), ruling the final call incorrect, while back in the studio former Socceroo great Mark Bosnich took the opposite view. Either way, the initial call was far from a “howler” and questioned the legitimacy of the VAR butting in to effectively re-referee a decision, something the technology was never intended to provide.
Probably the biggest bugbear of any technology naysayers is whether the time in which a decision takes is something that can have a detrimental affect on the match being played. The IFAB (the lawmaking body) have assured the VAR process will be swift in its action, to keep the game moving, a process that has been successfully proven by GLT. The examples that have taken place so far involving the VAR have however proved to be anything but smooth.
On a whole, a decision seems to take a minute, from incident to to decision, this was first seen in the clunky effort in Japan at the Club World Cup, where a referee used a monitor at the side of the pitch before awarding the penalty. The process has streamlined somewhat since then, with the referee keeping in touch with a fellow referee in the VAR booth via an earpiece, a change that should in effect allow for a much quicker review.
However, as was the case in the A-League’s debut VAR decision, the first of it’s kind in a top tier domestic league match; in the match between Wellington Phoenix and Sydney, the delay was illustrated to be much longer if the ball is still live. The decision, a handball by a Wellington Phoenix player in their own box was agreeable, but the conversation between referee and the VAR didn’t take place until 30 seconds had passed while the ball was still in play. This situation offers up a temporary in-play state where anything possibly can happen (ie. a goal, a red card etc.) which in the end could be upended if play is called back.
In the end nothing came of a Phoenix breakaway, but it brings into question the emotion change, as the home side went in search for a goal only to then find out they are conceding a penalty at the other end. Even if the play is dead, the seconds/minute delay to double check the findings can suck the atmosphere out of the moment, moments that define football’s worldwide popularity. Cristiano Ronaldo and Filip Holosko have both had to wait agonisingly to see if their goals have stood in the last 6 months, before half-celebrating at the end, as the news trickles through. The heart in the moment stuff that goals in this sport provides you with,will inevitably be lost in a simple 30 second delay.
Behaviour on the pitch
One thing that can’t be certain about bringing itechnology in is the long term behaviour of those in the stadium; players, referees, coaches and fans. GLT experienced little if any teething pains with this, due to it’s clear cut nature. If a player appeals, the referee can point to his watch to categorically answer his critics. With the VAR, no such certainty as I’ve discussed before can be given, which can only lead to lengthier appeals, questioning of officials and raised tensions, all adding to yet further delay in-play.
The A-League were quick to confirm their stance on this; stating that any player/coach appealing for a decision to be reviewed to the VAR would be booked, adding that the initial rounds of its implementation would largely allow players a “get out of jail” free pass as it was a new concept to get used to. However, as we all know confrontation of match officials is regularly a problem the game can’t get away from, so it begs the question if regular non-VAR decisions are regularly being allowed to be contested aggressively, what will stop players contesting to use the VAR?
The A-League elimination finals at the weekend saw multiple examples of confusion, aggravation and abuse from both sets of players pre and post the decisions being reversed. It also didn’t alleviate the pressure from the stands; Sydney FC fans, despite having two decisions reversed by the VAR in their favour, roundly booed the officials leaving the pitch at half-time. We may be going into this hoping it’ll clear up the games’ biggest talking points, but at present it seems to be creating more.
The change in behaviour stretches back from the players and coaching staff to the referees, as has already been seen. Referees in the comfort of having a second opinion in their ear have started to either play it safe or negate their duties altogether. There was an incident at the weekend where referee Peter Green pointed to his earpiece when questioned on a penalty decision, indicating “I haven’t been told it was a penalty,” effectively dodging his role to independently make the call.
How both players and referees view the game and it's decisions will also change. One of the first pieces of advice you are taught when you start to play the game is “play to the whistle”, but in a VAR world how can this still apply? In effect, if a striker sees the offside flag raised, and hears the referee's whistle, does he chance a yellow card for kicking the ball away, against the chance the VAR overturns the decision and he is allowed a shot on goal?
The same goes for the defending team, with VAR decisions now taking action, even when the whistle has blown for offside, if a defender stops as he hears the whistle, does that mean the goal can stand? There are going to be instances where the referee awards a penalty, when the play could continue to a goal scoring opportunity, only to be revoked on review; where’s the advantage there? We may get to the stage, where we regularly hear the whistle go, and play still goes on “just in case” the decision is overruled.
Just the beginning
Given the climate for continual changes to the laws of the game (cite the unnecessary amendment to kick off procedures, and the proposition of sin bins), it’s only going to be a matter of time before further technology is used. Already fans in large numbers have expressed an interest in a challenge based system, as is the case with tennis, where coaches/captains will be able to challenge calls, I’m assuming with the VAR in place, non-penalty box related action that doesn’t involve red cards.
While all in good intention initially, football isn’t the same sport tennis is. While tennis calls are done in the moment where play is stopped, these type of calls in football will demonstrably slow the game down, thus allowing a crucial tactic to kill the game dead. It’s possible to see coaches at all levels of the game, using their “challenge” to engage a timeout scenario, rather than using it purely to contest a call.
At the end of the day, the types of decision that we want clarity over, are the decisions that are the most subjective on the pitch, and in the end are the calls always going to be what we want? Former English Premier League referee Howard Webb, now playing an integral role in the implementation of the VAR in the MLS, appeared on BT Sport Score two weeks back to explain the new system, and it’s suitabilities, eventually to be introduced in England.
After a lengthy and interesting debate with ex-pros on the panel, Webb was called upon in live action to point out where the VAR would be used. It’s involvement was up for discussion quickly, as Hull City striker Omar Niasse was sent off for an overly aggressive challenge against Watford. While the panel of ex-footballers agreed in unison that the challenge shouldn't have seen a straight red. Webb concluded that the decision wouldn't have been overturned, as he wouldn’t be able exercise considerable doubt over the initial decision, to the disbelief of the studio. Ironically, two days later the FA panel overturned the red card.
These incidents are hardly reaffirming the need for video technology in football officiating. Those who back the implementation, will argue that it’s key to clean up a sport littered with missed howlers that need to bring balance back to key matches. However, I argue that bringing in the technology, will create yet another talking point when it comes to officiating, slow the game down and in the end take further attention away from the match being played.