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NHL's experience warns FIFA not to overdo VAR

Monday 5th June 2017
Video assisted review is coming to a top flight football league near you. VAR has its benefits but is hardly ideal, as recent National Hockey League offside rulings prove.

Among major stateside sport competitions, hockey most resembles football. Further, the NHL has probably incorporated video technology into its officiating process more so than gridiron football, basketball, and baseball. Every single game, regular season and playoff, is monitored both in the arena where it is played and from a command center in Toronto.
Coaches must challenge some rulings for them to be reviewed, yet every goal is automatically judged by the command center to assure its legitimacy. Rarely, but occasionally, play will be stopped because a goal has been missed. The horn usually signifying a period's end sounds sometime in the middle, startling roughly 20,000 people. Referees are informed the goal must be awarded. They clue in the confused coaches, players, and fans, reset the game clock, then resume play with a face-off at centre ice. This is a good thing.

Beginning with 2015-16's regular season, the NHL also began allowing goals to be challenged based on an attacking team having been offside. Hockey's offside rule is simpler than football's. Unfortunately, as league officials would discover when the process was implemented, simpler translates to slightly less difficult to accurately determine in real time. This has become not such a good thing.

In football, the border dividing onside and off is imaginary. Its location depends on where the outfield defender nearest his/her own touchline is standing at the exact moment an attacking player releases a pass that will then reach a teammate on the invisible line's far side.

In hockey, the line is not invisible. There are, in fact, two very noticeable blue stripes painted from side board to side board demarking the attacking zones (think final third) from centre ice's neutral zone.
If an attacking player crosses the blue line before the puck, he/she is offside. If the puck leaves the attacking zone, all the attacking players must also evacuate before it can be returned by a teammate. If that's confusing, here's a visual primer.
You may have noticed that, when the player trapped offside in the video put himself back onside, his stick stayed in the zone. This is another subtle difference from football, wherein a linesman may (or may not) deem an attacking player offside regardless where his/her feet are in relation to the defender. If a head, shoulder, or arm is beyond the defender, some linesman, though not all, will raise their flag, causing the referee to blow play dead. In winter, it sometimes seems certain linesmen will call players offside because their breath crosses the line. This also occurs in Scottish football due to the drink culture. I'm not saying Scots drink excessively. Some do, though no more than many Canadians. Rather, I'm saying we're considering applying incredibly precise technology to a subjective rule.

Returning to more objective ground, in hockey, when a player's skates straddle the line, he/she is neither in nor outside the attacking zone, therefore not offside or, when caught in the zone on a delayed offside, back on. Either both skates or one with the other lifted must be in the zone to be onside, or outside to end a delayed offside.

Is your head spinning again? Apologies, but I did say judging offside in hockey was only slightly less difficult than in the beautiful game.

Football linesman, as mentioned, must determine where attacking players without the ball are while simultaneously discerning when the one in possession, often many yards away on the far side of the pitch, delivers the ball. Easy for a chameleon. For a human, not so much.
Football linesmen with an interest in nature must secretly wish they were chameleons. Not only would their 360° vision ensure virtually every call is correct because they can see in two directions at once, but if they hashed one, they could blend into their surroundings to escape the boo-birds.
Hockey linesmen have it a bit easier. They know exactly where offsides will occur. They need cover far less ground to be in position to make a correct call. They wear skates to traverse a slick surface, usually allowing them to arrive at the blue lines well in advance of play. Nor need they concern themselves with events anywhere but directly along a narrow visual plane. Yet, after implementing offside review, the NHL was dismayed to discover its linesmen miss calls with an alarming frequency no one anticipated.

There had always been an acceptable margin for error built in. Sometimes run of play outpaces officials. Occasionally, players inadvertently barge into them, necessitating a best guess. Avoiding a collision can also leave linesmen out of position. Bodies crossing their sight line sometimes obscure the puck. Review was meant to correct those mistakes, a solution everyone found reasonable.

What has become unreasonable is technology's precision. It allows assistant coaches equipped with HD monitors connected to live feeds to quickly review every zone entry, with stop action replay, to detect players who are offside merely by millimetres. If a goal is scored, the head coach can then challenge to have it overturned no matter how long the puck is in the attacking zone before said goal occurs. In essence, their job security often depends on their ability to remove as much excitement as possible from the game. The same applies to football, else Arsene Wenger would be far more popular than Jose Mourinho. One might think these offsides barely visible to the naked eye would be rare occurrences. Yet, when you consider the tiny increments of time digital technology can capture, successful challenges happening with regularity begin to seem inevitable.

Hockey and football fans aren't like coaches. Each group has paid to watch athletes do things they themselves can only dream: skate or run with blinding pace, stick handle or dribble past embarrassed defenders to get in one-on-one with the goaltender/keeper, shoot from impossible angles, connect on a one-timer or put an insane dip on a volley, tip a point shot or meet a ball in mid-air, and, ultimately, score goals. They scour YouTube for the most amazing, unbelievable ones.
Both sets of supporters lament there aren't more goals in their chosen sport. Seeing a large amount rejected due to technological intervention chafes worse than Trump taking away your healthcare or Theresa May your gran's house. As FIFA catches up with other sports by embracing VAR, this is a consequence it will wish to avoid. Less goals, I mean. Gianni Infantino doesn't want your gran's house. Still, easier said than done, as the NHL can attest.

At the moment, the Stanley Cup Final is being played between defending champions Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. Three games in the best-of-seven series have been played. Pittsburgh won the opening two at home before Nashville won Game Three in its venue. Each game in Pittsburgh featured a goal overruled due to offside review.

In Game One, Nashville's PK Subban appeared to open the scoring after Filip Forsberg straddled the line to take an entry pass. Review officials determined his trailing skate was off the ice, rendering him offside. Both a metal skate blade and sheeted ice reflect light in a manner making it very difficult to judge depth. Thus, even with high resolution digital cameras, discerning exactly when two are no longer in contact can sometimes be nigh impossible. No broadcast image clearly showed Forsberg's skate lifted. NHL rules mandate evidence must be conclusive to overrule a goal. Nonetheless, the goal was disallowed, with speculation the league's command center had a definitive view it had not released to television. Pittsburgh exploited Nashville's confusion and disappointment to score three quick goals, then held off a late surge to win. Had conclusive video been released, VAR might be held in a better light.

In Game Two, Pittsburgh's Matt Cullen was ruled offside after review, overturning a Pittsburgh goal. One brief still shot cleary, indisputably captured him lifting his skate with the very edge of the puck still over blue paint. The timing was so acute, the naked eye could never have caught it in real time. VAR had clearly determined the correct call, yet the margin between error and accuracy was so miniscule it seemed semantic. Unlike the Predators, the defending champion, been there, done that, can take it all in stride Penguins maintained composure and found the net four more times without being challenged.

As pundits debated the two calls, the prime arguments against VAR were revisited.

"Determining such marginal calls takes time which, in turn, takes away from the game's flow." It's a legitimate complaint. At the same time, no one wishes to see a blown call cost a team a title.

Desire for accuracy is then countered by accusations "technology is removing the human element from the game."  This one is ridiculous in its hypocrisy. We've already agreed no one wants a referee to decide a match, as Champions League Final referee Felix Brych effectively did by reacting to Sergio Ramos theatrics when Juventus sub Juan Cuadrado lightly tread on the Real Madrid defender's foot on 83'. Brych assessed the Colombian a second yellow, reducing Juve to ten men for the duration. Cuadrado had deliberately stepped on Ramos, committing another needless foul after just being cautioned ten minutes earlier. With restraint, he wouldn't have forced the referee into a controversial decision. On the other hand, commentators all agreed Brych would have been well within acceptable parameters to merely take Cuadrado aside to issue a warning, then Ramos to recommend a better acting coach.

The Spanish champions were in control at the time, ahead 3-1. Yet, there was time for Juve to level. Consider the following:
Could Massimiliano Allegri's side have accomplished a similarly stunningly victory had Cuadrado been warned rather than ejected? Juventus were being dominated by Madrid much as Bayern had Manchester United in 1999. They were comparative outsiders against an established elite side, just as the Red Devils were. They also had enough attacking quality to turn the match on its head, just as United did. The critical factor is the referee in 1999 possessed the restraint to let the match play out. Brych did not. We will never know if we've been robbed of an even greater moment in history than we were given when Los Blancos were allowed to coast to the final whistle to claim their twelfth European title. I would rather an official review a play to determine there was more, rather than just enough to warrant a sending off.

The same standard holds when VAR is applied to offside. The rule is subject to interpretation as matters stand. Do we truly want video assisted review to take momentous goals off the board in a World Cup or Champions League Final when the referee has not? Do we wish momentum to shift on a technicality? Making correct calls is important but an acceptable balance needs to be struck between the human and camera eye. As yet, FIFA has not embraced technology sufficiently but it would be equally detrimental to become overly reliant upon it.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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