Football, as they say, is a game of opinions. At this moment in time it is clear that the use of VAR is one of the issues most likely to divide opinion in the game. Trialled for the first time in English football in the FA Cup this year, the system has caused major controversy and, at times, looked rather ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the national game.
Referee’s chief, Mike Riley, has explained that VAR acts, effectively, as a fifth member of the match day refereeing team. The technology is only to be used in specific circumstances – those being goals, penalties, direct red cards and instances of mistaken identity. Crucially, the system only comes into play when the match day officials are deemed to have made a clear and obvious error and, if this is the case, then the fifth official watching the replay will communicate with on-field referee, offering advice.
In theory, then, the system sounds like a good idea. It must be said that the technology has helped to rectify a number of incorrect decisions in the FA Cup. It has, however, been far from a resounding success. One of the main criticisms from fans and pundits being that the system simply takes too long to use and disrupts the flow of the game. Decisions referred to VAR are only supposed to take a couple of minutes; in reality, uses of the technology take several minutes. For instance, when Liverpool hosted West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup fourth round, there were around eight minutes of stoppages courtesy of VAR being deployed.
And it is not just the time taken to reach the decisions that is the problem here. Perhaps the more concerning issue is the lack of clarity and fan participation. Fans pay good money to go and see their team play; under the current system they are totally removed from the decision-making process, bereft of any commentary, video analysis or even a simple sign to show those in the ground that the VAR system is being used. It is clear that, if the VAR system is to become a regular feature of the sport in the future, fan participation is the most significant issue that remains to be addressed. A symbol sign in the ground would likely do the trick – how long the FA will take to reach this same conclusion, however, remains to be seen.
Despite the teething problems, now that we have seen VAR being used in football, is there really any way that we can turn our backs on it now? The system is by no means the ‘perfect cure,’ ultimately because decisions in football are subjective. What constitutes a foul in the mind of one referee, is not the same as what constitutes a foul for another. As such, there will always be controversy surrounding refereeing decisions, but VAR has real potential to alleviate these issues.
We must acknowledge that refereeing at the very highest level is an extremely difficult task. Officials have to make split-second decisions, often not with the clearest view. Decisions, in whatever sphere, have consequences. In football, subjective decisions can be the difference between eternal glory and infinite heartache. No matter how much training they receive, referees and linesmen are always going to make mistakes; in this sense, VAR can be used to protect officials and take some pressure off them, whilst at the same time ensuring correct decisions are made.
Fans may not be too keen on the suggestion that VAR can be used to protect match officials who are, of course, the pantomime villains of the footballing world. Perhaps they would be more positive about the potential that VAR has to eradicate some of the uglier sides of the beautiful game. Last weekend, Spurs and England duo Harry Kane and Dele Alli both received widespread criticism in the press and on social media as they were both adjudged to have dived. It can be argued that VAR has the potential to act as a deterrent for such occurrences of cheating in the future. Would players really be so willing to take a tumble if they knew that their actions would be scrutinised whilst the game was still taking place?
Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, in the wake of Leroy Sane’s ankle injury incurred via a nasty challenge from Cardiff City’s Joe Bennett, demanded that officials had to do more to protect his players. Bennett was only shown a yellow card for his challenge – numerous pundits suggested that VAR should have been used in the match, presumably to result in the dismissal of Bennett. This is likely to have been the case, and is another positive that VAR can bring to the game.
The issue of player protection, however, is rather more complicated and VAR’s role is less concrete. Football matches can become very heated affairs, and players can easily get riled up and fly into potentially dangerous challenges. In such instances, the onus should very much be on the match day officials to take control of the game and keep the players calm. VAR can only act retrospectively after a dangerous challenge has been made; officials need to try and prevent them from happening in the first place.
VAR is a very contentious issue. It will likely be so for some time. It must be remembered, however, that the system is in its infancy. Game-by-game, officials are getting more acquainted with the technology and its designers are using feedback from games to improve the system. It is by no means perfect, and it may be some time before we see it being used every weekend in English football, but it has already proven its worth by overturning some incorrect decisions. VAR certainly possesses the potential to improve the future of the game.