VAR: It Giveth and it Taketh Away

Football, a game where two teams battle it out on a pitch and try to net the ball in the opponent’s goal. The winner is the team who scored the most goals. Sounds simple, right? Exactly, it is a game designed to be simple that the fundamental rules and objective of the sport played hundreds of years ago are similar to the ones recognised in modern football. All this without today’s technology and state of the art facilities. 

But then walks in Video Assistant Referee. Otherwise known as the infamous VAR.

What is VAR?

For the uninitiated, VAR basically adds another “referee” to the game. That is on top of the 3 referees already present on the pitch. This “referee” is actually a team. It consists of several people, stationed in a screen filled room, who have access to replays of the game at hand.

Using this, they can review potentially game-changing decisions and actions like whether to certify a goal and check for offences (such as offsides or fouls). The team can then provide the on-pitch referees with any information that can aid them in making a decision in either circumstance.

The Issues with VAR:

Ever since its first official use in 2016, VAR has only snowballed into a point of incredible controversy. It is a sad fall from grace because VAR was supposed to revolutionise the game. It was meant to make the game of football less faulty to errors in human decision making and introduce the first steps to perfecting professional football games. Still, there are flaws. 3 of which always seem to dominate the headlines whenever VAR is in question. 

  1. Mistakes

With the advent of VAR, a significant number of offside and penalty decisions have been declared. Reviews make it considerably easier to call on events that could have been obstructed or missed by the referees. However, this does mean that it is without error. 

The Football Association (FA) in England defines an offside as a situation in which any part of the head, body or feet of the attacking player is ahead of the opposing team’s defence line. For example, Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford was ruled offside as his arm was in a “beneficial” position. As the image illustrates, the player is clearly onside and an arm will not provide any benefit as arms cannot be used in football. Other similar cases have been reported. 

When there are decisions like this, the legitimacy of VAR fulfilling its original objective of for fairness for both teams is questionable. 

2. Time Wastage

On-pitch refereeing decisions usually take only a matter of seconds. Instant, quick and without any hesitation. The issue with VAR is that it is a lengthy reviewing procedure. The team needs time to rewatch the replays from multiple angles or make a calculated graphic to determine if a player is offside. The English Premier League, for example, states that a VAR review process takes an average of approximately 50 seconds.

However, this does not include the time taken to relay their findings to the on-pitch referee as they ultimately make the final decision. VAR is simply supplementary. Unsurprisingly, this forwarding of information can take additional time as the on-pitch referee will need to e the new information and can also rewatch the event in question on a pitch-side monitor. Some reviews have taken up to 5 minutes and can even go up to 10 minute review period as recorded in Serie A match.

3. Ruining the flow of the game

This is not an uncommon sentiment in the football community. In parallel to the time-wasting complaint, stops in gameplay to check for errors can result in the loss of momentum. 

Needless to say, football is a fast-paced affair. A few swift passes or a quick counter-attack can cripple even the strongest defences. Stops in play would completely upset the motion of the game, not to mention allow teams to regroup and discuss tactics to counter the opposing team. The spontaneity of the game and quick wit required to play the game, which many in the community adore, is seemingly disregarded in the name of perfection. 

Also, if we are talking about entertainment value, there is nothing entertaining about watching 2 teams standing around waiting for a final decision. 

Where do we go from here?

Let me be clear, VAR is not all bad. For example, prior to its introduction to the Premier League during the 2018/19 season, 82% of the game-changing refereeing decisions were accurately made. The introduction of VAR saw this number jump to around 95%. This is a significant improvement. The game has been improved. Regardless, with glaring inaccuracies in referee calls, the time wastage and the removal of emotions from what is an inherently emotional game, the cons will almost certainly be ingrained as some of VAR’s prominent flaws. These discrepancies have a way of chipping away at the confidence and trust people have in this technology. 

And it has shown,  simply by this phrase spreading around on the internet:

VAR creates as much confusion as it does clarity

VAR has the potential to improve the game dramatically – and it has. But, at what cost? How far are we willing to go in our journey for perfecting the game? This has certainly taxed the sport in a few areas. But as VAR is used more frequently, there is a growing dependency on this technology which renders VAR as indispensable and irreplaceable. As far as the future is concerned, VAR, with all its flaws, will remain in use. 

Written by Ivan Shahran