Be Careful What You Wish VAR

There is a clamour for the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referees) in to English football by officials at the FA and particularly by those who present football to the masses via Television and other media. VAR is being presented as the future of football officiating which they claim will result in more accurate decision making and less contentious score-lines.

Personally, I hope VAR has the same kind of future as the Sinclair C5.

Leaving aside my view that the laws of our beautiful game should be applicable at all levels twenty-two players gather to kick a ball about, I believe VAR will bring more harm to the game than good for three significant reasons.

Refereeing standards will be lowered, not raised.

I always prided myself that whenever I drove anywhere for the first time that I would be able to find my way to the same place in all future visits with ease. I would check my route in advance, taking note of alternate routes, and whilst en route I would soak up visual landmarks and sign-posts to enable me to create a picture of the journey in my mind’s eye. And this preparation and conscious awareness would not only enable me to reach my destination each time in the future, but also resulted in higher driving standards.

And then I acquired a Tom-Tom Satnav system, technology that was going to help navigate my way with ease to places old and new.

I very quickly became reliant upon my Satnav. At first it seemed like the answer to all navigational challenges, but it didn’t take long for it to turn sour. I soon realised that I was no longer planning my route and checking for alternate options should there be a hold-up. So I had no back-up plan to help me around a trouble spot, particular of concern if I needed to get somewhere by a certain time. Additionally, I was no longer paying attention to my surroundings on my journey, not being aware of landmarks and sign-posts as I drove, being focused on my Satnav instead, a particular problem on those frequent days when the Satnav connection was broken.

In short I became lazy in my journey planning, and as a consequence my driving standards decreased.

It was the reliance on panacea technology that led to this demise in driving standards, and I fear the same will happen to refereeing. It won’t be noticeable immediately but over time referees will become dependent upon VAR for decision making. And it will be scrutiny by the media of referees using VAR that will cause standards to slip.

Which occasions will the media focus on? Those majority of occasions when the VAR confirmed the referee had made a correct decision, or those isolated occasions when the VAR over-ruled the original decision? I think we know the answer.

And the effect on referees of this media scrutiny of over-turned decisions will be massive. Why would anyone make a significant decision knowing that there was a high risk that because of their positioning on the pitch and angle of view of an incident, or because of having to make a quick decision in real time, that the decision they made would be over-ridden by VAR and the referee be severely criticised?

What a safer option it would be to go to the VAR first and allow the technology to make the decision for you. We know it won’t start off like that, and the FA’s position will be clear that VAR is not intended to be used this way, but it’s only human nature to not want to be found out for getting a decision wrong (a decision made in good faith), and so the more the media, players and managers focus on how VAR corrected errors, the less the referees will want to put themselves in a position of being berated just for trying to do their job as best they can.

And what happens when referees used to using VAR take charge of a game without its use? When they have gotten so used to being able to refer to a VAR for assistance in the key decisions, how accurately are they going to be able to make those decisions without it?

I eventually ditched my Satnav because of the effect it was having on my driving standards and I very quickly reverted to my previous higher levels. I hope football does the same quickly with VAR when it realises the negative effect it will have on refereeing standards.

Power on Pitch will Switch from Referees to Players

We’ve all seen it. The unsightly melee of players surrounding the referee because of a perceived missed hand-ball, foul or off-side. The game’s administrators have tried to prevent it happening, but still it persists. But, the referee is in charge and how often do they change their mind?

Well, extremely rarely based upon mass player complaints alone, but players have become savvy. They know they won’t change the referee’s mind by their protestations alone, so they take the only other course available to them. They encourage the referee to consult the assistant referee.

Evidence shows that referees will on occasions change their decision following a discussion with their assistant referees and so it encourages players to try to get this to happen every time they feel aggrieved. And if this approach works for pitch-side assistant referees it will definitely work for VARs, and very likely even more so as referees can take a ‘Pontius Pilate’ approach and wash their hands of the decision making with consultation of the removed, indisputable VAR system.

I know this isn’t how the VAR system is supposed to be implemented, but again it is human nature for players to try to take any course of action they can to get appeasement for a perceived wrong. It will only take one very high profile incident of a mob of players insisting the referee consults the VAR, and for that consultation process to lead to an overturned decision, to result in players confronting the referee en masse over every decision they don’t agree with.

And for the referee, the VAR is the perfect patsy to the players’ demands. On the majority of occasions when the VAR confirms the referee’s decision is correct the referee can deflect the players’ anger to the VAR. When the VAR leads to an over-turned decision, the referee can then easily deflect the focus of the opposing team’s ire onto it.

It’s a no-lose situation for the referee to consult the VAR, but it will lead to players demanding its consultation more and more, and so indirectly it will be the players who influence the key decisions.

The VAR System is not Infallible

The introduction of VAR is promoted in the belief that it will lead to better, more accurate decision-making and therefore lead to more accurate results. But this all presupposes that the use of VAR will lead to clarity as to what actually happened in an incident, when the truth will be far from it.

We’ve all watched replays of key incidents in a match and found ourselves with completely contrasting views of what happened. Why should VAR be any different? And we’ve also seen replays where it takes many repeated plays to ascertain exactly what happened. How long will referees have to consult the VAR before having to make a call that it cannot help confirm or overturn the decision already made? And what impact will that have on the flow of the game?

And how do the referees convey the reasons for the final decision to those attending the match? For those watching at home, there is time for the commentator to be able to explain a complex decision, but for those in the stadium, how will they know the reason behind an overturned decision, especially one where it is not clear cut? Anger at a perceived injustice of an incorrect call will be replaced by a bewilderment over the reasons for the final decision. Neither is a satisfactory state of affairs.

Final Thoughts

So, if VAR does lead to lower refereeing standards, increased player power and cannot guarantee to be 100% accurate, why is its introduction so vehemently being supported?

For the media I can understand. It adds another layer as to why TV in particular is the best way to ‘consume’ football. The TV companies have been unofficial VARs for years, so this is a natural progression. Reliance on VAR is another way to keep the money rolling in.

For football clubs, and their board of directors, I can understand. They want their clubs to win and make as much money as possible. There’s a belief that VAR will correct all potential wrong decisions that in the past have had a perceived impact on results (always negatively on the club, of course). How long before clubs sue the FA for wrong decisions made without VAR that lead to lost points and lost income?

For the FA I can understand. They feel their referees need protecting and believe VAR will take the focus away from the person managing the game and move it to the inanimate VAR instead (still a person, I know, but the perception will be one of a machine). They are also keen on improving refereeing standards per se, and see VAR as a means to achieving this. Although it may lead to some more accurate decisions it won’t necessarily lead to better standards of refereeing.

For football, though, I cannot understand. VAR will completely change the way the game is played, and in particular, the flow of the game. It will become as stop/start as American Football but with fans at the ground bemused by how a decision has been determined. There will be long gaps between players celebrating a goal and that goal being chalked off. There will be more mass confrontations of a referee, both before and after VAR consultation, for less and less severe incidents.

And all this for the introduction of a system that in all likelihood will not lead to any more accurate decision making than already exists, but will come at a very heavy price both financially and for the health of the game.

To paraphrase Edwin Starr, VAR – what is it good for?




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