Video Assistant Referees: A Step Too VAR?

by | Jun 2, 2017

Graham Poll would have LOVED it. Every time there was a controversial incident, and he was hardly averse to them, the cameras would have been on him to see if he would refer it to the Video Assistant referees (VARs). And when decisions were reached, the cameras would still be on HIM as he strutted around (and he WOULD strut) making said decision clear.

The VAR system is under full tournament trial in the World Under-20s Cup Finals, currently wowing about 3,000 people-per-game in the Korean Republic, now that the hosts are out. It was tested in last December’s World Club Cup. However, having ignored that competition as the manufactured bulltish it clearly is, designed to mask Fifa’s irrelevance to club football, I can’t offer informed comment. It p*ssed Real Madrid off, though. So, it can’t have been all bad.

Past wariness about technological assistance has largely centred on referrals introducing another stop-start element to a sport in which “letting the game flow” is unquestioningly a ‘good thing’ when on-field referees apply the advantage rule effectively.

This disaffection was often expressed by highlighting football’s lack of “natural breaks.” And by fears of regular VAR referrals making 90 minutes actually last as long as they feel when Jose Mourinho teams defend what he considers favourable situations away from home.

Rugby union’s “Television Match Officials” (TMOs) have certainly helped lengthen games, although other factors have been at play there and rugby fans can better judge the overall effect of TMOs than a card-carrying non-fan such as myself. But cricket’s decision review system (DSR) development has instilled further fears.

Even the speediest forms of cricket, “T20” matches and England/Australia matches in the 1990s, have natural action breaks (some might say such breaks last entire test matches).  This initially allowed DRS to reverse obviously mistaken decisions with minimal extra delay. However, DRS was soon misused.

Cricket legend Geoffrey Boycott was an early DRS advocate. And while searing frustration is something of a default position for the great man, it was clear that DRS as he saw it was crumbling before his eyes, as he watched England play in the West Indies in 2009 from BBC radio’s commentary box.

Decisions quickly began to take minutes rather than seconds, which defeated the entire logic of DRS. If an incorrect decision could not be spotted after 15 seconds, it was, by definition, not an “obvious” error. Boycott wrote, correctly, in 2011, that “the object of the DRS is to correct bad decisions,” not “for players to take a chance with borderline calls and just hope they get away with something.”  But DRS has naturally “progressed” to exactly that, with batsmen almost never accepting being given out without pondering an appeal.

Worse still, umpires’ confidence has been so eroded that they call for TV screens on every “line” decision (stumpings, run-outs) even when EVERY player on both sides knows what the decision should be. And, apologies for this obvious play on words, umpires are losing the balls to call “no-balls” other than when they are so clear you can see them on radio. Sometimes the offence is only checked if a batsman is given out and has a chance of a reprieve.

Supporters of various review systems often cite the added drama which often results. “Hawkeye” technology was introduced ton tennis in 2006 and is applied with efficient speed and sufficiently theatricality. It was introduced by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 2013. And the drama and the stakes were the highest when the last shot of the thrilling 2014 All-Ireland Hurling final was referred to it, with the sides level. After a dramatically-perfect 24 seconds, the shot was ruled wide. And hurling folklore added another chapter.

“Drama,” of course, is no criteria for judging such systems, even if the lack of drama has tempered enthusiasm for introducing VARs to football. However, there was a nod to the theatrical in Fifa’s announcement of VARs in Korea to support referees “with ‘match-changing’ decisions.” The International Football Association Board’s (IFAB’s) tagline for VAR in its six-page summary document, March 2016’s “VARs Experiment,” was “minimum interference – maximum benefit.”

This has arguably long been possible. During the 2010 World Cup finals, TV slow-motion replays showed whether corners were correct awarded, before they were taken. So, time has certainly been taken over the decision to begin experimenting with video assistance for the more complex “match-changers.”

“VARs Experiment” said its “aim” was “NOT to achieve 100% accuracy for all decisions as there is no desire to destroy the essential flow and emotions of football which result from the game’s almost non-stop action.” However, one of the 12 “principles which are the foundation” of the experiment insists that “there is no time pressure to review the decision quickly as accuracy is more important than speed.” (all emphases are the document’s)

As was too-briefly the case with DSR, on-field decisions “will ONLY BE CHANGED” for “a CLEAR ERROR,” the key question not being “was the decision correct?” but was it “clearly wrong?” Reviewing every decision “would be impossible, without completely changing football.” So, VAR influence is limited to “Goals, Penalty/no penalty decisions, Direct red cards (not 2nd yellow cards) and mistaken identity.”

“The referee must always make a decision” and is therefore “not permitted to give ‘no decision’ and refer the situation to the VAR.” “Only the referee can initiate a review.” VARs can only recommend one. And the referee “must not” be surrounded if a decision is reviewed. Of course, they will be unless the “principle” that “a player who uses the ‘review signal’ will be cautioned” is enforced better than regulations against players waving imaginary cards.

Intriguingly, “If play continues after an incident which is then reviewed” (as has happened in Korea) “any disciplinary action…during the post-incident period is not cancelled, even if the original decision is changed (except a caution/send-off for stopping a promising attack or denial of a goal-scoring opportunity).” And “there is a maximum period before and after an incident that can be reviewed,” which can go back to “the start of the attacking move which led to the incident.”

VARs sit in a “Video Operator Room (VOR) in/near the stadium” or in a “match centre,” conjuring up stereotypical visions of sharing offices with call-centre staff in India. They do, though, “see the pictures we see,” to quote a frequently-asked question, as “the VAR, assisted by a Replay Operator (RO)” has “independent access to, and replay control of, all broadcast “feeds.” These finals’ VARs are pictured in their own VOR before every game, and are based at the stadia(CHK)

Match referees can either “make a decision based only on the information received from the VAR or review the footage directly before making a final decision,” an “on-field review” or “OFR”, as it is known. Because as you may have noticed, EVERYTHING connected to this experiment has to have a bloody acronym, or ABA, if you…no…stop it…

Ultimately, however, as Fifa noted in their pre-tournament spiel, “the referee will continue to take the first as well as the final decision on the field of play.” So far, in Korea, VARs have worked. Indeed, many VAR referrals could usefully be included in future VAR marketing presentations.

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan stopped the Argentina/England game to let England’s Fikayo Tomori receive on-field treatment for a head injury. And during this “natural break,” the VARs saw Argentinian Lisandro Martinez’s “flailing” elbow (as body parts are described in such circumstances) inflict said injury.

Once Tomori recovered, his assailant saw red and the incident was timeously and neatly concluded as if it were the end of a film. Life, though, is rarely like that. And the second decision justified the VAR experiment as much as the first justified the system itself.

Uruguay’s Joaquin Ardaiz spurned a gilt-edged goalscoring opportunity against Italy. And play continued with little fuss, until Italy were stopped mid-counter attack. Cue puzzled looks (genuine ones, not the clearly-guilty Martinez’s feigned stupefaction) until referee Walter Lopez drew an imaginary TV screen and gave a penalty. Uruguay captain Nicolas de la Cruz was either discombobulated by the circumstances…or just sh*t at penalties (he missed his first in South America’s Under-20s championship too), as his woeful kick was easily saved.

Italy themselves benefited correctly in their next game when the VARs confirmed that Riccardo Orsolini was fouled just INside the penalty area, Orsolini showing more composure from the spot than de la Cruz. Venezuela, who didn’t need the help, had their second goal against Vanuatu re-instated when the VARs took under a minute to determine that the ball reached the offside Sergio Cordova via a defender.

Ecuador, who DID need the help, got it when Senegal’s Aliou Badji forced the ball over the line out of the two hands Ecuador keeper Jose Cavallos had on the ball. The game was delayed no longer than it takes to treat keepers who get “injured” to waste time in oh-so-many games.

One VAR-ing “non-decision” in the Korean Republic/England game took two minutes. But that has been about the “worst” delay. Again, a vital decision was correctly made. And possibly the tightest but correct VAR decision may also have had the most decisive effect on a result.

Costa Rica were denied an equaliser against England with the score still at 1-0 when replays showed Esteban Espinosa was offside by a shirt-tail blowing in the wind while stood in front of England keeper Freddie Woodman as Ian Smith’s shot rolled past them into the net. And English panic when Costa Rica made the score 2-1 in a game England otherwise impressively controlled suggested that the result could have gone either way had the VAR-reviewed goal stood, making the decision vital and correct in equal measure.

However, video assistance could offer no assistance to unlucky USA (and Spurs) centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Against Saudi Arabia, he was booked in the 40th and 45th minutes. The second decision was soft, the first pathetic. However, the VARs could only intervene on the second as it resulted in a red card and are, currently, unable to retrospectively review “first yellows” in such circumstances.

As when “fifth officials” were introduced, TV commentators haven’t immediately got the hang of VARs. But the Eurosport team’s thinking is already further advanced than when Robbie Savage, Mark Lawrenson et al (convincingly) professed ignorance of what fifth officials “actually do,” merely because they couldn’t see them doing anything, the concept of communication by microphones rather than flags on sticks being too 21st century for their 20th century mentalities.

The Venezuela/Japan game afforded plentiful opportunities to debate the experiment. Eurosport’s Jon Driscoll and Russell Osman took them. “We are not entirely convinced in the Eurosport commentary box” that the system is “working quite as clearly as it might.” Driscoll declared. “It’s been interesting,” noted Osman, euphemistically.

But Osman added: “You’ve got to understand what it is being used for and what it is not being used for,” before demonstrating that he hadn’t “understood” at all, complaining especially that “players can’t use it to defend themselves.”

Still, the second-round matches were shunted onto Eurosport Player without commentary while Eurosport 1 & 2 wall-to-wall covered the early rounds of the French Open tennis, gossiping inanely as well as showing actual tennis, with Greg Rusedski’s vacuous opinions and the on-court fortunes of Betthanie Mattek-Sands apparently more important to English viewers than supplying commentary on England’s game with Costa Rica (he says without bitterness).  So, there’s been plenty of time for Osman and Co. (who are doing a fine job otherwise, as per) to gain that “understanding.”

As the tournament progresses and the stakes get higher, all protagonists will be more severely tested, although you sense that not even the highest stakes available in Korea will test the system as rigorously as when top club managers encounter it. Why Jose Mourinho’s face appears in my mind’s eye at this particular juncture, I *cough* honestly don’t know.

But…so far, so good. And Russell Osman is right. It HAS been “interesting.”

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