How To Fix VAR: A Ten Point Guide
It’s been hogging the headlines for the last couple of years. The biggest star in global football at the moment isn’t Neymar, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Megan Rapinoe. The biggest star in global football over the course of 2018 and 2019 has been a bank of television screens and a small number of nameless men sitting and watching in judgement. Video Assistant Refereeing has been the breakout football star of the last couple of seasons. There’s a problem, though. Few people, if anybody, seem to believe that it’s actually working in accordance with the sort of game that we want to watch and the general consensus is that something, but something, needs to change. With that in mind, we present a brief guide on how the professional game might be able to move away the incessant arguing about the subject which has engulfed the game over the last couple of years.
The first step here, however, is for those without the power to do anything about it. You may have noticed that a vast amount of resources have been poured into VAR. It also seems reasonable to assume that FIFA, UEFA and all the rest of them are perfectly well aware of the criticism of it on social media and in the press. We can rage at the dying of the light as much as we like, but the truth of the matter is that it’s practically impossible to believe that Gianni Infantino is going to just turn up behind a lectern and say, “You know what? Actually, it turns out that all of this is bullshit, so we’ve agreed to bin the whole thing off, smash all the cameras and screens to pieces, and set them on fire as the opening ceremony for this year’s World Club Cup.”
If the likelihood of anything remotely like this happening is more or less zero (consider their response to the global condemnation of the 2022 World Cup finals being held in Qatar – “We’ll just play it on the winter if it’s hot! And with even more teams!”), then perhaps it’s time to accept that rather than howling into the void about how shit it is, if we can all agree that some sort of middle ground is better than what we have now (and no, it’s not very fashionable to compromise these days – I fully understand that), then maybe football in the world of twenty-four hour surveillance can be made to work after all.
1. Stop trying to pander to people who lied to you: For several years, football’s narrative regarding referees was clear. Standards were falling, there was too much money at stake, and the pace of the game was such that referees (who, it should be remembered, are now younger and fitter than ever, since they too became professional) simply couldn’t keep up with it all. The thing is… these arguments were frequently made in bad faith. Supporters – not all, but a big enough number to be significant – never really cared about all decisions being called correctly. They cared about, at best, all decisions which benefitted their team being called correctly. Those who were clamouring for VAR were never interested in complete objectivity. If FIFA want to end the endless cycle of manufactured “controversy” that follows every time a referee blows their whistle, VAR is clearly the wrong way to do it. The big question is: did they, or do they now, know that?
2. Stick to your side of the bargain: Back in the days when FIFA seemed to recognise that there was a public relations battle to be won over VAR, the concerns of sceptics over the extent to which it might become an interruption within matches seemed to be addressed by their clear statement that it would only be used in the case of “clear and obvious errors.” It is now perfectly clear that this has not been the case. Offside calls determined by fractions are neither clear nor obvious. Indeed, to consider any infringement that requires twenty repeat viewings from multiple angles and in slow motion as such insults the intelligence of every single person watching. Perhaps it was always inevitable that the sort of weirdo that would want to be a VAR monitor would get carried away and start insisting that referees start checking every single potential infraction. This doesn’t make it right, though.
3. Accept that the technology has both limitations and flaws: At the start of the group stages of the Women’s World Cup, something rather odd happened. FIFA confirmed that goalkeepers feet staying on the line for penalty kicks – which for some reason has become one their bugbears of late – would be reverted to referees, rather than falling under remit of the Robo-Ref. At the same time, though, it felt as though there was a change in the use pf VAR from the start of the group stages on. This may have been a matter of perception, or perhaps even a reflection of the higher median quality of teams still competing in the tournament, but something changed. We may never find out whether a decision was made to change the way in which it was being used, but FIFA’s relative silence over it all suggests that they don’t care about the enormous criticism of their new baby. The levels of criticism are very bad for football, though, presuming that a significant part of FIFA’s mission statement is still to further grow the game. Harmonising its use between different competitions – it’s fundamentally absurd that different competitions might use the technology in varying different ways – might be a start, in this respect.
4. Understand that the spirit of the law is as important as the letter of the law: This concept – that when one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the “letter”) but not necessarily the intentions of those who wrote the laws in the first place – is as old as the Bible, but FIFA seem to have forgotten this in their rush to apply their shiny new technology. Most fans understand that the spirit of the law is important. Offside, for example, was introduced to stop a preponderance of goal-hanging, which had made some matches unwatchable. The current interpretation of the offside law, however, feels like many to be a concerted attempt to catch attacking players out when they try to time a run clear of defenders. All of which leads me on to…
5. Urgently reform both the offside and handball laws: If one thing has been more apparent over the course of The VARolithic Era (© ™ etc), it’s that the current zero tolerance attitude towards the handball and offside are wholly incompatible with a game that can now call every decision at a thrice. I’m not going to go into too much detail about what the rejigged versions of these laws should be – it’s categorically not the job of those who are critical of these laws to come up with replacements, and to suggest otherwise is classic deflection – but would suggest that the basic principle of offside should return to favouring attacking players when tight, that handball should centre around the movement of a defender’s hand or arm towards the ball, and that referees should be encouraged to give more indirect free-kicks for more marginal or minor infractions carried out inside the penalty area.
6. Limit the number of views and disable the slow motion: I have no idea how many times a referee should be able to view an incident or from how many angles, but I’m pretty certain that the answer to this question should not be “infinite.” Let’s just reiterate, here: the stated aim of VAR is to correct “clear and obvious errors.” If a potential infringement has to be viewed twenty times and from six different angles, there is no rational way in which it can be described as a “clear and obvious” error. In the same spirit, if an incident has to be seen in slow motion, it can’t be “clear and obvious”, and that’s before we move onto the small matter that slowing something down and repeated views can make just about any challenge look like a foul. You’d think that FIFA would already have clocked this from the fact that there have been numerous decisions reached during the Women’s World Cup that have remained contentious still after the video verdict was handed in, but there’s little evidence to suggest that even this most blindingly obvious of facts seems to have passed them by.
7. Speed up the decision making process: Some people hate VAR as a point of principle, others because they feel it gets too much wrong. It’s a spectrum, rather than a zero sum game. There’s a multitude of people, however, who will grudgingly accept that the nature of the game has to change over time, and that yes, VAR is acceptable if it gets more or less every decision correct. Even these people, however, find their patience with FIFA’s new toy worn gossamer thin by the delays in reaching decisions. The referee having the final call is one of the principle reasons for this, but this attempt to continue to emphasise that “the referee’s decision is final” when the very existence of a network of cameras ready to point out when they might have already got something wrong seems to be almost completely misguided. FIFA need to make whatever changes are necessary to VAR in order to stop these three, four or five minutes stoppages while decisions are reviewed over and over. It’s sucking the joy out of the game, and the point at which people simply stop enjoying watching football is the point at which many will simply walk away from it. And when people make that sort of decision, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever return.
8. Embrace newer technology: I strongly suspect that these opening years of VAR will one day be looked back upon with some degree of laughter. We’re like a cinema audience in 1910, diving out the way of a train speeding towards a camera because we think it’s going to crash through the screen. It is possible that one of the biggest problems with VAR is that the technology can’t at present ultimately deliver what FIFA want from it. New technology could streamline the entire process to a point at which we may even end up with AI referees with tolerances for the fuzziness of the laws of the game built in. Another not uncommon criticism of the new technology has been that it draws a line between elite level professional football and the rest of the game, so have FIFA put any thought into how mobile technology might be used to allow teams to use VAR at every level of the game? Sure enough, it might not work, but with something this important wouldn’t it be worth examining from the point of view of experimentation and potential development? After all, at least AI referees would end the problem of grassroots getting sworn at, harassed and occasionally worse on Sunday mornings. It’s entirely plausible that VAR’s teething problems are partly caused by the technology not being sophisticated enough to deal with its task seamlessly just yet. If that’s the case, this needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
9. End this futile pursuit of “perfection”: Association football has survived flourished over more than a century and a half with human referees who make human errors, and it is a testament to the self-importance of the game in the 21st century that it no longer feels that it can continue with that state of affairs. It’s conjecture to glibly lay out the reasons why the game has taken over the world, but aesthetically speaking it seems reasonable to believe that, at a fundamental level part of the appeal of the game is its human element and its flow. The latter of these is already being torpedoed, but the idea that the game’s imperfection gives it a human element that seems missing from so many other sports – watching a football match is usually an exercise in looking for pearls amongst swine – has got legs. The current iteration of the game, as seen in this summer’s tournaments, doesn’t really seem to be pleasing that many people. Is that really what FIFA wants? Just for once, a little introspection on their part would be most welcome. Heh, no. Me neither.
10. FIFA are going to have to acknowledge that they might need to rip it up and start again: This may be something approaching anathema for am autocratic body like FIFA, but while VAR usage is still in its nascent stages, all options for its future have to be kept on the table, and that includes ripping it up and starting again as well as getting rid of it altogether. It feels as though there are a lot of people watching the game who are at varying stages of playing “wait and see” over VAR, hoping amongst hopes that a greater degree of common sense will surely have eventually have to prevail over all of this. If changes don’t come, though, it seems entirely plausible that interest in the game could start to drain away as people come to decide that this isn’t a game that they love any more. Consider this: goals, the biggest expressions of unabated joy in football, aren’t as much fun as they used to be. This may sound trivial, but it absolutely isn’t. We’re already losing that one moment when you get taken over and lost in elation, ecstasy or despair, as people hold their breath in dread of what might be coming through the referee’s ear-piece. The “passion” and the “emotion” are front and centre in the game’s self-image. Just look at any FIFA promotional material for proof of that. Should it ever come down to a binary choice between losing that moment and keeping it, FIFA would be betraying the entire game if they opted for the former rather than the latter of those two options.
A lot of you will remain abolitionists when it comes to VAR, and it’s a viewpoint with which I have considerable (and increasing) sympathy. There has been a feeling in the air for some time that something fundamental that is changing about the game which should be resisted. In these troubled and tetchy political times, it often feels as though some of us are increasingly using football as respite from a world that seems to be going collectively going insane, and the idea that we could be at the cusp of losing elements of what makes us love it in the first place is disorientating. Personally speaking, I’m not against change. Evolution is necessary and a critical component of why the game has been so successful and grown so much over such a lengthy period of time, and I don’t want the football of the future to be a game preserved in aspic, unable to evolve because of a fear of substantial change.
Somewhere in this morass of thoughts and fears, though, there has to be a way to make this better, to make VAR work for us rather than feeling as though we’re all having to make endless compromises and deals with the devil in order to keep watching and consuming the game. None of this has to be this way, but it’s a question that we should probably all be asking ourselves this summer, especially (for those of us who live in England and/or support English clubs) with the Premier League adopting it in just a few weeks time: where, exactly, might my tipping point be? The fact that people may be asking that question is the reason why FIFA should be looking at the current state of VAR and the constant stream of terrible reviews that it’s been getting for a very long. If they don’t, the risk of the global game’s governing bodies strangling the golden goose that got us to this point in the first place to death is very real indeed.