As the soccer world gets accustomed to Video Assistant Referee, the community must also come to grips with the inevitable controversies that come with the system. Since debuting on the world stage in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, VAR has spread to every major domestic league in European soccer. While the introduction of this technology has recently generated controversy, VAR remains an important, albeit still-evolving, tool to improve the fairness of the game.
For those who are unaware, VAR allows professional soccer referees to look at the events around the soccer field in extremely slow motion to determine whether or not a goal should be counted or a penalty should be awarded. This technology helps with goals where the ball may not have fully crossed the goal line or a player may have been offside.
Last weekend, Tottenham Hotspur appeared on track to notch a Premier League victory when the team celebrated a 2-0 lead over Leicester City in the 64th minute. However, further replays suggested that in the build-up to the goal, Korean forward Son Heung-min may have been millimeters offside. After a two-minute review, the referee disallowed the goal, and Tottenham subsequently turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat.
The impact of such a marginal call on the result of a game has led to charges that VAR has gone too far. Some argue that there is not enough certainty in the technology to make such tight decisions with such major ramifications, especially in a sport where one goal makes a massive difference, compared to technology changing a basketball score by two points or a baseball game by one run. In the example of the Tottenham offside call, it is difficult to be sure that the camera frame being analyzed represented the exact moment when the pass was struck.
The frustration with the technology is magnified by the fact that overturned decisions drastically alter the emotions of fans. One moment the team’s supporters are euphoric, thinking they have sealed a game, only to find out seconds later that a borderline VAR decision has put the team back on its heels. This dynamic is foreign to soccer fans, who are accustomed to the more than 150-year-old game being played without video reviews.
However, VAR has brought the sport a long way from the demonstrable refereeing errors which routinely tainted games in previous years. There are too many examples to cite, but as recently as last season, in which VAR was not in effect, Manchester City dropped points in a close title race due to a Wolves player scoring a goal off a clear handball. Yet another example is when Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off in tears in the Champions League group stage after a poor red card decision.
In the aforementioned Tottenham-Leicester City game, an uncontroversial VAR decision disallowed a Leicester City goal thanks to replays showing the goal scorer to be clearly offside. Had VAR not existed, the incorrect decision would have stood and sparked its own share of controversy from that game.
When discussing VAR, it is important to remember why it was introduced in the first place. The level of outrage prompted by incorrect calls which could have been fixed with one look at a replay was more potent than the current outrage over some decisions being supposedly too marginal.
Relative to other major sports, soccer contains very few crucial moments per game. Goals, penalty decisions and red cards each deserve to be analyzed with as many resources as possible so that the referee can make the most informed decision.
Some may argue that marginal decisions should prompt the referee to default to the initial call on the field. This position is defensible, but more defensible is the argument that the advanced technology will yield correct calls most of the time, even if by millimeters. The skepticism of VAR’s accuracy should be tempered by the fact that multiple assistant referees, stationed in a video operation booth, are involved in the replay process.
The laws of the game should be applied in all cases, and if the reviews suggest a marginal infraction likely occurred, the corresponding decision should be made.
Regardless of any adjustments to how VAR is implemented, decisions will inevitably upset the team that the call harms. We shall see if, given time, fans will begin to accept overturned calls as part of a fairer and more just game.