VAR is Here: Be Careful What You Wish For

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There was a lot of excitement when it was announced that this World Cup would feature Video Assistant Referee (VAR). This was often framed on equality grounds. The men had it, and it would have been absurd to not make it available for the women as well. But in a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ many folks have recently discovered that they’re not actually that thrilled with VAR now that it’s here.

To be honest, I find myself in that group. And it’s a little surprising.

I’ve always been a fan of integrating technology into the game to ensure that referees can get calls right. But the devil is in the details, and it increasingly feels like the details are killing us. In this case, a combination of two things I’ve always liked (instant replay and a clarification of the incoherent ‘deliberate handball’ rule) have combined to produce a monster.

Now, with almost any ball hitting an arm in the box producing a penalty, and with the ability to catch every millisecond of play with video review, we’re going to get more and more of these penalties from a player is hit point-blank in the arm.

In fact, if I were coaching a team, I would encourage them to deliberately shoot at the arm. It’s clearly a winning strategy (Liverpool just won the men’s Champions League final this way), and it’s viable 25 yards away from the goal where the chance of creating a real goal is minuscule.

But for all that, the real problem with VAR has been the interminable delay between an offside play and the whistle actually being blown. This is the policy because they need to let play continue to see what the result would have been.

We saw this to an extreme degree in Australia-Italy where probably a dozen plays were allowed to run out, only to be retroactively nullified by the offside flag.

The explanation for this change is here:

The principle does make sense. They feel that a false positive is unrecoverable (you can’t recreate the state of play) but a false negative is harmless (you can just reset play to where offside infraction took place). But in practice, a false negative is anything but harmless. There is a lot of emotion and energy wrapped up in the play, and it all gets wasted for very little benefit.

That’s frustrating for the fans at home, but also for the players themselves. After the Australia-Italy match, Sam Kerr said it was “really frustrating” that plays were called back so often, breaking up the game, and also stealing time (since only five minutes were added despite all the delays) that they would have desperately wanted to try and find a late equalizer. For Italy, Cristiana Girelli said much the same: “Sometimes you score the goal and then you have to wait to check. It’s strange.”

In a pre-VAR world, the assistant referee would have flagged these plays immediately, and we all would have gone on with our business. As Kerr said, “if it’s offside, it’s offside. Just call it.” 

There were mistakes in that world, absolutely. And it’s understandable that people want to fix the mistakes. I want to fix the mistakes too. But it sometimes feels like the technology has overtaken the purpose for which it was designed.

There’s a close analogy here to baseball – my other favorite sport – where the advent of instant replay has turned something that went uncalled for 150 years (the millimeter of space that often emerges between a basestealer and the base when they pop up) into a subject for unending litigation. It’s technically true that umpires were simply missing this call for all those years, but it’s also true that no one was harmed in the process and the game is now more tedious for all that it’s technically right.

Still, the reality is that VAR probably isn’t going anywhere, and is only likely to be expanded into new zones going forward. That is unlikely to include women’s soccer in most venues, at least for a little while. But while there’s clearly an element of inequality in this – the new technology being available for men and not women – we also might want to savor the fresh air while it’s still available. And hope that the powers-that-be come up with some sensible rule changes to manage the downside here, and make the application of the technology fit more seamlessly into the free-flowing, exciting game that we’ve loved for so long.

 

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[…] I also wrote a piece right here at Backline about the Video Assistant Referee system, and the way it’s beginning to take over the experience of these […]

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