Football has changed. Gone are the days of the slow build-up, of a thousand crosses from deep and the three-minute long tiki-taka drills on the midfield. Football has become lightning-quick, players are faster, shoot more accurately, can pass for longer distances and it’s all because of advancements in technology. New balls are constantly designed to give the players maximum accuracy and power, new shoes for the same reasons, the fields are better and favour a quicker tempo.
Which makes the referee’s job a lot harder.
There are three referees at any given time on the field (the main along with the assistants), in high-level games even a fourth, and in some cases even a fifth and sixth along the goal-line. Still, mistakes happen all the time and this is where the Video Assistant Referee (V.A.R.) system comes in.
The International Football Association Board (IFBA) started testing and implementing the V.A.R. system two years ago in an effort to reduce refereeing mistakes, with mixed results. Let’s take a look at what exactly V.A.R. is, what are the pros and cons, and what we can expect in the future.
A big misconception is that it operates independently and has the power to overturn decisions. The truth is that V.A.R. is just another tool in the hands of the referee. The video assistants cannot make a call on their own, or force the referee to review an incident, they can only recommend a review if there has been a blatant transgression in which case, again, only the referee has the power to change a decision. He was -and still is- the highest authority on the field. Most of the time it’s the referee that recommends a review, not the other way around, by making the outline of a rectangle with his index fingers, indicating a video screen.
V.A.R. operates in three steps (incident/review-advice/decision) and has jurisdiction over four cases deemed “game changing” by FIFA: goals, penalties, red cards and cases of mistaken identity.
In the case of goals it serves as a tool to detect any infringement that would result in the goal not being awarded, the penalties are self-explanatory, in the case of red cards it is checked only when a straight red card is warranted (not in cases of a second yellow card) and in situations of mistaken identity it can be used to clarify which players should be cautioned or sent off – such a mistake happened three years ago in a game between Arsenal and Chelsea, when Kieran Gibbs was awarded a red card, instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain who had actually handled the ball.
This is the biggest change in football in a very long time, and as it’s always the case, when something new is introduced it comes with its pros and cons and takes time to be polished out.
The pros are really simple. The obvious advantage is that it enables the referee to take a second look to the passage of play to avoid undeserved cards, brash decisions and take a cool-headed approach to the incident at hand. In it’s current format V.A.R. works just like goal-line technology, something that had its own problems when it was first implemented, but became an essential part of football nowadays.
Such a decision was taken recently against our team in the game against Juventus, and the referee -thankfully- got it right. Benatia’s handball shouldn’t be a penalty and V.A.R. helped validate the referee’s decision.
The same happened in 2011 in a game between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Di Maria blasted the ball towards the goal, Alaba tackled and the ball struck his arm. It was the exact same case, one of unintentional handball, but the ref awarded the penalty, completely botching his decision. There was no V.A.R. back then to check upon the incident. If there was, chances are that it wouldn’t have been awarded as a penalty.
Now imagine the same happening against Juventus. Can you imagine Juventus, of all the clubs, slandering Inter because of a refereeing mistake?
That’s true for any case really, not just penalties. Motta would have never been sent off against Barcelona in the semi-final in 2009. V.A.R. also reduces the cases of diving. Of course this will never be completely eliminated, but if it happens in the box it will almost certainly be caught out in the replay. And if you think that this isn’t such a game-breaking problem just remember how many times Busquets had his opponents sent-off. Even Eder is constantly doing it.
Last but not least, it helps in protecting the referee from the -mostly unjustified- fury of players. How many times a referee awarded a foul/penalty/card and players encircled him screaming and swearing they did nothing wrong? There was another incident involving Barcelona (nothing against them in particular, these are just examples off the top of my head) when playing against Villareal a few years ago.
Busquets fouled, the referee immediately attempted to award a second yellow card in a clean-cut case but Puyol and a handful of Barcelona players surrounded him complaining. This resulted in not only the card never being given to Busquets, but they managed to influence his decision so much that the Villareal player was actually awarded the card for diving. Even as it happened replays were showing that Busquets was indeed the aggressor, but the referee had no means to review the incident. Fans at home had actually a clearer picture of it, instead of the on-field official.
The above are all strong cases in favour of V.A.R., but the system isn’t without its drawbacks and they are mainly on the entertaining side of football.
Fans love debating games to the death over a few rounds of beers. Everybody loves the free-flowing, robust and fast side of football. Making it about clean-cut decisions takes away from the drama and the passion fans experience during a football game, an end-to-end game full of tackles, screaming, pushing and kicking.
That takes us to the second argument against V.A.R.; it disrupts the flow of the game. IFBA promised “minimum interference for maximum impact” but that’s hardly the case. There’s an equivalent system in rugby (T.M.O.) but it’s very quick, efficient and leaves little room for confusion. That would have been the case with V.A.R. if there was just the monitor on the sidelines and the referee checking it quickly to validate his decision, but IFBA had the ludicrous idea of having a separate video assistant referee and a separate assistant video assistant referee, something that keeps the main referee from coming into a conclusion quickly and efficiently.
The above reinforces the biggest and most serious drawback of V.A.R.; the final decisions are still taken by human beings prone to subjective interpretation of any given incident. The most prominent and simple case would be the referee awarding a penalty where the view isn’t perfect because there are too many players around the ball, obstructing it. In this case a referee might reverse his initial -and correct- decision because of the well-voiced fears of the assistants who could unintentionally undermine his decision.
These are all legitimate concerns and should be taken into account by the IFBA in order to improve and polish the system. It’s not yet fully implemented, it’s on trial, which means that V.A.R. is in no way a sure-fire officiating measure for the future. The first V.A.R. training centre will actually open its doors in Italy at the end of January.
The reason I’m for it is simple; if implemented properly it will greatly reduce ridiculous decisions that can alter the course of a game. On the other hand I’m slightly opposed to it because mistakes will never be fully eliminated and is actually hurting the game in its current form. If fans decide that football should be definitely on the sporting side then yes, V.A.R. is essential. If they lean over to the entertainment side, not so much.
Which brings up the ultimate question: Is V.A.R. really needed? In true football spirit, the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no”.