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Reasons to be hesitant about VAR technology

Friday 12th January 2018

VAR is a hot topic at the moment, given its recent use in tournaments such as the Carabao Cup and FA Cup. The introduction of VAR aims to bring a 2% reduction in errors. The reduction would improve the referee’s decision making accuracy from 96% to 98%. Why then, are there so many debates about whether the technology will be a help or a hindrance? Why are some people (especially those in the industry who are so critical of referees) so hesitant to incorporate it into the beautiful game?

What is VAR technology?

First things first, what exactly is VAR or VAR technology? VAR stands for video assistant referee. The name itself is a bit misleading as there is actually more than one person involved behind-the-scenes to review decisions. The VAR team is made up of at least one current or former referee, plus his or her assistant and a video replay assistant. The team can recommend reviews to the match official, who can then choose to review footage themselves on a pitch-side monitor before making a final decision. The on-field match official will have the final say on whether the decision stands or should be changed.

The VAR team is instructed only to recommend reviews for “clear and obvious” errors made by the on-field referee. Primarily, for four match-changing situations:

  1. Whether goals should stand
  2. Penalty decisions
  3. Direct red cards shown or not shown, although second yellow cards are not reviewable to draw a line
  4. Mistaken identity, like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs against Chelsea in 2014

Why would anyone be hesitant to implement this technology? Because, as simple as VAR seems in theory, it is not quite so simple in practice. The technology has been in a trial period over the past several years and was only formally implemented in English football for the first time during an international friendly with Germany last November. How exactly VAR is implemented has created some controversy and has done little to reduce debate around some decisions.

VAR slows down the game

One of the biggest critiques of the technology is that it will slow down the matches and football’s natural flow. But, the aim of implementing VAR technology has always been for “minimum interference, maximum benefit.” Officials continue to stress they will only recommend a review for one of the four match-changing situations previously listed.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said he is always in favour of new technology. His opinion was even if it creates some new problems it can get rid of old ones. His only critique was that it could slow down the game if the referee is the only one who can watch the replay, as the rest of the stadium sits and freezes.

Certainly, in the Carabao Cup final earlier this month at Stamford Bridge, VAR took considerable time to implement. Referee Martin Atkinson consulted VAR two times for Chelsea penalty appeals. During the second consultation, he took 1 minute, 25 seconds to review the footage. Referees Chief, Mike Riley acknowledged this fact. “That is a little bit longer than we have done in training,” said Riley. “It typically takes the VAR around 30 to 40 seconds to look at something.”  

Statistics from Series A’s usage of VAR show that stoppage time has increased, but only by 19 seconds on average. Meanwhile, the time of review since the first match day has decreased from 1 minute, 22 seconds to just 40 seconds. So, VAR does slow down the game, but very minimally and it is improving.

Decisions lack transparency

Matters are not helped by a lack of transparency. Players, coaches, and crowds in the stadiums are not privy to the discussions between the referee and the VAR team and don't get to see replays. For those fans used to watching Hawkeye replays in tennis or listening to the referee's comments in rugby, it can be frustrating.

Choosing not to show some insight into the decision actually takes away from the experience of fans at the stadium. It is sometimes not apparent what part of the decision is even being reviewed. At least those watching on television have the benefit of replays and analysis while the decision is pending.

Different leagues apply different rules

In Germany, the argument for and against VAR technology has been particularly heated. The Bundesliga has a VAR representative at the stadium, but reviews take place at a central hub. This led to allegations that Hellmut Krug, the former head of the VAR system, was influencing events and decisions.  

Krug was accused by German publication BILD of influencing penalty decisions in favour of his favourite club Schalke. He was sacked in November of last year after fans were protesting and calling for the authorities to scrap the entire VAR system.

Overall, it makes sense why some people are hesitant to fully rely on VAR technology. VAR has the potential to slow down the game, and it does not offer enough transparency on the process nor clarity for the times it can really be applied. Although there are guidelines in place, reviews can be called for other reasons. VAR technology is also not going to magically remove all refereeing errors from the game. Referees themselves expect only a marginal increase of 2% accuracy. 

In the end, the potential positives should outweigh any negatives. VAR is still in its infancy after all. In the short-term, there are and will be problems. Referees Chief Mike Riley, commented “This will be really good for football when we’ve worked through it and ironed out all the subtleties. This is a journey and we’re at the start of it. It will take two or three years for it to benefit football.” Most likely, ten years from now we will be wondering how we ever survived without VAR.

Nikki Parsons

Nikki is a British-American expat living in Barcelona for the past five years. Currently developing Match the Bar, a B2B sports bar app to be launched in Spain in 2018.

Living in Catalonia, Nikki supports Barcelona and Girona, but also appreciates Swansea City, Doncaster Rovers and the Chicago Fire. Until this season all these teams were in different leagues, so there hasn't been much conflict of interest yet! Always ready for a trip to Camp Nou or the Montilivi.

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