VARs: The Final, Final, Final Word

by | Mar 5, 2018

I have been unable to spell my reactions to the latest Video Assistant Referees (VARs) palavers, on and off the field. The non-swear words, anyway. Tottenham’s FA Cup-tie against Rochdale, we shall consider in a moment, stopping for now just to apologise to those with whom I had a twitter conversation on the non-VAR-related chapter in the curious case of the Son Heung-Min penalty in the night (a conversation made more curious still by Fernando Llorente scoring every time I tweeted). But first, Fifa President Gianni Infantino.

Those of you still awake AND caring may know that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) had their 132nd Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Zurich on Saturday, at which they decided unanimously to amend the Laws of the Game to facilitate the formal, post-experimental introduction of VARs. “Historic,” they sang, with Irish FA CEO, Patrick Nelson, quantifying their self-importance by ranking the AGM as “no doubt in the top ten” for “making significant and historic decisions.”

And with the IFAB being the “independent guardians of the Laws of the Game,” and “the only body authorised to decide and agree changes” to said laws, not even Infantino, as impartial chair of Saturday’s shindig could have pre-empted this decision by announcing “his duty” to introduce the system, thereby amending the IFAB’s task from whether to HOW to change the laws.

Except that Infantino did just that on Tuesday, in case any IFAB directors were forgetting Fifa’s definition of “independence.” He suggested that “we have to base decisions on facts and not feelings.” This, from the head of an organisation whose decision-making seems rather more based on another f-word. No, not that one. “Finance.” Had the Fifa Executive Committee which awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup received that “facts not feelings” advice, they’d be laughing still.

Infantino also incorporated some lazy national stereotyping, the Swiss-Italian dismissing the Italian League’s huge problems with the VAR experiment as “part of the customs, the traditions of Italian football. If you lose the match, before it was the fault of the referee, now it’s the fault of VAR.” Those Latin types, eh…er…Gianni.

He also let his feelings trump (pun intended) facts by suggesting that “much more time is wasted on throw-ins or free-kicks than on correcting a potentially wrong decision with VAR.” If he really believes that, he should have been at the recent Liverpool/West Brom FA Cup tie. And at Wembley on Wednesday.

TV omnipresent Richard Osman tweeted at half-time that “one day someone will write a university dissertation on the first half of this Spurs v Rochdale match.” And hugely-talented football writer Ian King (aka “my boss”) tweeted on Thursday: “This VAR is such bullsh*t that I’m at least as likely as not to walk away from football, certainly top-level football, altogether if it becomes a permanent installation in the game.”

It is beyond my wit and wisdom to argue with those sentiments. However, I would argue that the source of the “such bullsh*t” is not the system itself. At least not predominantly. As I asked on twitter, is VAR “a bad idea, a good idea implemented appallingly, or a bad idea implemented appallingly.” Wembley on Wednesday provided plenty of the “appalling.”

It is a truth to be held self-evident that if Alan Shearer can improve an idea, it wasn’t a good idea in the first place. And his suggestion that VARs be limited to deciding on “points of fact” remains a huge improvement on the guiding principle that VAR remits cover “clear and obvious errors” and (additional wording from the IFAB on Saturday) “serious missed incidents.”

Referee Paul Tierney’s eighth-minute disallowing of Erik Lamela’s sixth-minute goal for Llorente’s immediately prior foul was a clear example of a VAR decision based on an interpretation of events, which the experimental system specifically proscribes. That the Wembley VAR was Graham Scott, the match referee at the VAR-besmirched Chelsea/Arsenal League Cup semi-final first-leg at Stamford Bridge in January, was therefore unsurprising.

As noted before, that the decision took two minutes demonstrated the lack of “clear and obvious” error, even accounting for delayed reactions induced by the shock of Llorente doing something right in a Spurs shirt. The only case for the VAR was that the goal looked “fine” to BT Sport analyst Robbie Savage (“if anything, it should have been the other way”) and to FA Chief Executive Martin Glenn. While commentator Paul Dempsey probably didn’t help viewers understand the process by declaring “Rochdale have won the argument.”

The 27th-minute award of a Spurs penalty for a 25th-minute foul on Kieran Trippier (“who was bowled over in the box, I won’t say tripped,” Dempsey…erm…said) by Dale’s Matty Done should not have taken those two minutes. Tierney awarded a free-kick, with his on-field assistant waving furiously for a foul (which, as TV commentators often say, “started outside the box”) but not indicating a penalty.

However, Scott over-ruled the decision on seeing that the foul finished inside the box. Clearly and obviously, too. So, only he and the gods alone know what took him so long. “Tick-tock, tick-tock” noted Dempsey, edging from impatience to anger, as he wasn’t being paid by the minute. He then supposed that Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, who looked miserable despite Spurs getting a penalty, would say “at least the fates are turning our way in the use of VAR.” Erm…

The shenanigans surrounding the actual spot-kick could not primarily be blamed on Scott, though, as he ‘merely’ confirmed a decision Tierney made at lightning speed. Indeed, the current “Law 14 – the penalty kick” appears silent on the specific events, Tierney immediately disallowing Son’s goal and booking him.

The relevant part of Law 14, amid a myriad of other sub-clauses, says: “If the ball does not enter the goal, the referee stops play and restarts with an indirect free-kick except for the following when play will be stopped and restarted with an indirect free-kick, regardless of whether or not a goal is scored: feinting to kick the ball once the kicker has completed the run-up (feinting in the run-up is permitted); the referee cautions the kicker.”

However, Son stopped, a pace-and-a-shuffle before he “completed” his run-up (stopping is “feinting” in football’s laws, despite the latter involving movement). So, he feinted “in the run-up” which Law 14 states, “is permitted.” Law 14 also appears to be silent on whether any encroachment should have been punished as it was the first offence. Son’s feint tricked eight players into encroachment. But Spurs’ Moussa Sissoko was nearly in an offside position before Son stopped.

Scott, seemingly, took nearly two minutes to see…none of this, play eventually restarting in the 30th minute. “That’s the correct decision, then,” noted Savage, confirming the opposite, as per. But, this time, he was no more confused than many other observers.

BBC Sport’s Neil Johnston, the Guardian newspaper’s Scott Murray and many, many more, reported that Son did whatever he did “during his run-up.” Yet, a near-consensus emerged that Tierney got these calls right. And match reports across the football media were inconsistent on how or even if Scott reviewed Son’s booking.

Mercifully, that was it for VAR controversies (I assume…I would have started hiding behind the sofa after that Son nonsense, if I had a sofa). Mercifully too, in the short-term, a shaken Spurs were eventually shaken into rendering the VAR controversies irrelevant to the result, harsh though 6-1 was on Rochdale, who arguably deserved to be level at half-time. Otherwise the controversies would have been amplified to the point of even-wider migraine-inducement.

However, in the longer-term, adding ultimate injustice to controversy could send England’s VAR experiment to a not-unpopular early grave. The outcome of the English Premier League (EPL) clubs’ vote next month on VAR implementation is uncertain, with 14 votes out of 20 required and varying degrees of concern voiced in the wake of Wednesday’s woes by Stoke City chairman Peter Coates and his controversialist Crystal Palace counterpart Steve Parish.

Parish is the first public ‘no’ vote. But his rambling objections (including, ahem, ‘puzzling’ analogies with BBC soap EastEnders) and Coates’ more ‘planet-earth’ style worries assumed that VARs will always operate as poorly as they did at Anfield and Wembley. “I didn’t realise how poorly it is operated in practice,” Coates noted, concluding incorrectly that “this long delay” was the system properly at work: “That’s not how we thought it would work. We thought there would be hardly any delay. I’m going off it.”

Parish also assumed, more probably correctly, that Infantino will be as over-influential on the EPL as he seems likely to be on the IFAB this Saturday (weather permitting, reportedly). “If the rest of world football was a ‘yes’ and Steve Parish says ‘no,’ that’s not even close is it?” No, Steve. It isn’t. No real need to ask.

Of course, systems of all sorts can be both used and abused. As too can authority. Infantino has abused his authority to railroad VARs into the World Cup finals, Fifa’s ruling Council will rubber-stamp that on 16th March. And at Wembley last week and Anfield in January especially, referees (match and video assistant) abused their authority, on at least one occasion at Wembley without the excuse that “at least they made the right decision.”

I still firmly believe that the VAR system envisaged in current guidelines, would improve football law-enforcement to a worthwhile extent and would not be “such bullsh*t.” But not until English match officials show that they have even the first idea what they are doing. Before Wembley on Wednesday, that seemed unlikely to emerge before August. It is certainly unlikely now.