VAR – Visually Atrophied Referees?

The introduction of new technology has become a part of the evolution of many sports. Here in the United States, the use of “instant replay” or video review of the action, came into play many years ago in our “football” and after a couple years of fine tuning to determine how it works best, it became a very successful and accepted part of the game, particularly at the professional level. It was so successful that other ” American based” sports ( basketball and baseball ) adopted it in similar forms. And hockey ( which, it must be said, is really Canadian-based) uses video review although on a reduced level compared to American football.

Soccer also saw calls for the use of video review, but it’s adoption was much slower. This was because, unlike North American sports, soccer is 1) world-wide in it’s regulation and oversight and 2) therefore much more bound by tradition. It took an obvious and meaningful mistake in the 2010 World Cup when England’s Frank Lampard clearly scored an equalizing goal against Germany and yet was denied by both the referee and assistant referee, who must have been staring at the sky to miss what the whole world saw…..that the ball was definitely over the line before it’s reverse spin (after hitting cross-bar and bouncing down) took it back out.

Lampard’s not – given goal

The ensuing embarrassment and comments finally pushed FIFA into adopting goal-line technology to determine if a ball has completely crossed the plane of the goal line and it has been very successful. Eventually the Video Assisted Referee, which is the FIFA name for instant replay, was adopted for much of the world, and last year the English decided to use it in their own unique way. The frequent display of obviously incorrect calls, particularly concerning offside, was the largest factor that contributed to the innovation of the VAR system. However, soccer is a sport with few breaks in the play and the ongoing philosophy has always been ” the fewer the stoppages, the better”. So, if the game is stopped for a VAR check that proves to be incorrect – a needless stoppage has been created. And, if a call made during the run of play, after a VAR check, proves to be an incorrect call, there is no remedy for the injured team since the play was stopped. So, after a short period of time, it became apparent that the VAR tool was best used to review action that has already occurred. Most attacks do not produce results that affect the final result of a match and therefore VAR is not needed to review the play. Of course, when a possible offside or handball, etc. takes place, the end result of the play is not known, so it became commonplace and eventually became policy, that unless an infraction is clear and obvious, the play is allowed to continue and then, if a goal results, the video can be checked for an infraction that would rule the play to be no goal. This brings up a conundrum of sorts: the referee has been, and still is, the sole and final decider of the action on the field. Originally the emphasis on the use of VAR was to correct clear and obvious referee mistakes. But the clear and obvious calls are the only ones actually whistled now, anything else is delayed with no call made until the action is stopped, especially if a goal results from the play. So, the original concept – using VAR to correct clear and obvious errors, is gone…the only calls made on the field anymore are already clear and obvious. This has produced exactly what many thought that VAR would eliminate – controversial calls. It’s as if the referees, both assistant and in the center, have developed extremely poor eyesight and can only see the obvious- and must rely on video to view the close stuff.

With the failure of the officiating crews to signal anything that might be overturned by VAR, the technology has become the means of decision-making in the vast majority of close calls. This would be ok if the electronics themselves made the calls – ala goal-line technology. But, goal-line is very different. The goal posts don’t move and the rule is very specific and always has been: the ball must be completely over the plane of the goal line to be considered to be a goal. So it was possible to create a system that makes the call strictly by computer…. and provides graphics to prove it is correct with the call. Matters such as offside or handballs are not as easy. The play can take place over a wide range of locations and the official interpretation of the infraction has a tendency to change from one season to the next. So, it falls to humans to view the play and make the call. Further, all close calls, as we have said, are being made by VAR. This leads to inconsistencies and frustrations in the performance of the system. First, every goal, every possible infraction leading to a goal, is scrutinized. This leads to the :” GOAL!…no wait…” situation which can be extremely frustrating. Spectators, both live and watching tv, don’t know how the VAR is judging the action, and, since these calls are being considered as the first view by a referee, they are judged by the smallest of margins.

The system is still comparatively new and the use of video has produced an ability to look at a play with microscopic closeness. This has produced a need for official interpretations of infractions , particularly those involving offside and handballs, that were not necessary before VAR was instituted. Is it offside if a players nose is closer to the goal than the defender? How about the players hair? Is it a handball if the possible offender’s hand is only 2 inches from his/her body? How about 3 inches? Since the VAR referee is making the call, there are going to be inconsistencies in the final determination of foul/no foul. Given that all close calls are being made by VAR , there are many of these inch-by-inch decisions, and the system is getting vilified by those who feel they have been done in by the calls….which – sooner or later – means everybody.

So what can be done? or should anything? The Soccer Yoda has two possible solutions, although they are admittedly slightly off the wall…ok, more than slightly.

A) Originally the VAR was considered as a means to correct the obvious errors that occur once in a while during a soccer season. This has changed so that now it is THE manner to examine play and make close calls that the officials don’t make anymore. So, lets combine the ideas. No change to the process is needed. Officials continue  to hold off on calls that might stop the game incorrectly. And VAR is still used as the major deciding factor on closer calls. BUT it is used as originally planned -to correct clear and obvious errors – if the call isn’t immediately obviously an infraction – it isn’t called. That would mean that any close offside would 1) not be called during the run of play, and 2) unless the non-call is considered to be a “clear and obvious” violation of the rules – the play stands. No more “armpit offsides”, no more drawing computer graphic lines to determine if a player’s little finger was in an offside position. No more – was the hand that touched the ball in an unnatural position when it was in front of the player’s face preventing a broken nose? If the VAR can’t tell by looking quickly and directly at the video still picture, the play stands. Would that eliminate all controversy? No. Aggrieved fans would still argue whether a decision about an infraction was “clear and obvious” or not. Would it reduce the number of controversial decisions? Undoubtedly yes. Would it mean many more goals? Yes. So what is wrong with that?

B) Ok, here is an even crazier idea. Because an incorrect call stops play and the team that actually did not do anything wrong, would, in effect, be penalized, referees refrain from making any calls. The problem is not the call, but the fact that play would be stopped for it. As Americans, we are familiar with that problem and the solution for it. Signal the foul, but don’t stop play. If the assistant referee thinks a handball occurred during an attack…..raise the flag but don’t stop the action. IF and only IF a goal results …then have VAR check it out and if the call is correct and not a “clear and obvious error”, then the goal does not count. The advantage is –  once the flag goes up everybody knows that any goal which results is subject to VAR examination and in all likelihood will not count, unless the call was an obvious mistake. Give the central referee a flag to throw if that official spots an infraction. Yes, I know , it sounds nuts and , of course, comes from American “football”. And there still might be calls that fans think are wrong. But the controversy caused by the system would be limited. And, perhaps, referees would again use their eyes and minds to make calls, rather than constantly deferring to the VAR.

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