VAR sucks - an extract from my recent book on Scottish refereeing.
"To work how I - and I suspect most football fans - want it to work, VAR would have to use technology that can provide instantaneous decisions. This issue – the hold-up to the game while we wait for someone to decide what has happened - is where VAR has proved most wanting. There have been numerous problems with VAR in general, but it’s the way in which it sucks all the joy out of the most important part of the game that really frustrates the fans. The lines drawn across the pitch to show that a boot or an elbow were offside infuriate everyone, not just because they might mean a goal is disallowed on a micro-technicality but principally because of the delay to the game. The requirement to go back to a previous incident similarly angers supporters, because many of them won’t have a clue what it was, having been caught up on the moment of the ‘goal.’ The infamous Scottish Cup final of 1989 was decided when Roy Aitken of Celtic took a throw-in which should have been awarded to Rangers and then in the move that resulted from Aitken’s throw-in, Celtic scored the only goal of the game. I was at that game and like many, possibly most, in the crowd had not realised what had happened, other than the goal being scored. The potential for violence during and, especially, after, an Old Firm match is high enough without creating additional flash-points. However, as I’ll explain below, that specific incident would not currently be considered by VAR. That being the case, the potential for trouble would increase exponentially. The only people who would benefit would be the media, because they would be able to milk the controversy for days. Not only is there that, relatively slight but nonetheless real, danger of crowd trouble, but the problem is that VAR was introduced partly because the amounts of money involved at the highest levels of the game are so humungous that ‘getting it right’ is seen to be of paramount importance. A wrong decision, we were told, could cost a club £millions, or in Rangers’ case in that 1989 final, possibly a major trophy. On that basis, where do we stop with VAR? If a throw-in is (knowingly or otherwise) taken by the wrong side and from it they attack for several minutes, force a corner and then score, is that any more or less legitimate for the time that has elapsed since the shy was taken? This actually happened in a game which I watched live on Sky, between Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion on 18th April 2022. In that instance, the referee over-ruled his linesman, who had correctly given West Brom the throw, and with the Albion players all moving up the pitch in anticipation of their throw-in, Forest capitalised, forced the ball forward, gained a corner and scored from it. Being the second-tier of English football, there was no VAR, but, as I’ll explain below, in this instance the goal would have stood, even with VAR. Then there is the slow-motion replay for potential penalties. No-one in the ground can see any incident in anything other than normal time, so why are we introducing this level of forensic detail into the game? We are getting to the situation like rugby, where the video is ‘rock and rolled’ backwards and forwards to see precisely where the ‘contact’ took place. It’s still highly subjective and consequently it’s a farce because any additional ‘rigour’ that might be applied comes down to one human’s view of what has happened. We might as well just watch a computer simulation of a match. Painful as it is when your team loses a goal after such ‘video analysis’ it is, in my view important to remember that this is a game between humans, with all the potential for human error and unpredictability that implies. Mistakes are made, more frequently by players than referees in most matches. Suck it up, go out for a pint and complain about it, then go home and wait till the next time, when you might get the decision and it will be your turn to rejoice. As noted, the media are, by and large, solidly behind VAR. For journalists, it’s a godsend, creating yet more opportunities for them to create stories and stir controversy. The argument that is constantly advanced (I heard it on Radio Scotland the night before I typed these words) is that it enables the right decision to be made and, moreover, that the technology and the speed with which it is interpreted are improving rapidly. Those last points are true, but do not detract from the fact that in too many instances VAR does not actually result in a ‘right’ decision, being still, as in the pre-VAR days, dependent on a human evaluating a situation subjectively. Two referees are perfectly capable of coming to different decisions on a penalty after being advised by VAR and then watching a replay on the screen. But in the meantime, fans are seething with impatience, deprived of the primary reason for attending a match, to wit, being lost in the joy of celebrating a goal for their team. Make no mistake: VAR has fundamentally changed the way we enjoy football. This, as a friend of mine reflected over an email exchange, is the real tragedy of VAR, namely that we, as fans, feel like we are being robbed of some amazing goals. As an Arsenal fan, he bemoaned two disallowed goals – against his own team - in his side’s game at Everton in December 2021, noting “they were criminal - and that’s coming from a Gooner!” He added, “Those decisions, especially the second one, completely ruined the atmosphere of a really exciting game. I’m fed up seeing, for example, a defender scoring his first goal for three seasons - the pure joy on his face and the fans rejoicing - and then seeing him crestfallen as the ref refers it upstairs.” The referees themselves are keen. In a rare interview with Radio Scotland. Crawford Allan, the Head of Refereeing at the SFA, said that VAR had increased the number of correct decisions made by officials. Of course, there are no figures for Scotland because we don’t have VAR here, but the Premier League in England claims that the number of correct key decisions has risen, from 84% to 94% during a match. I do wonder what is the basis for these figures? The statistic just seems to be trotted out, without anyone demanding to see how it has been calculated. It seems to me that there may be an element of the officials checking their own homework here. Almost every weekend as I was writing this section of the book, there were major rows over VAR, culminating in two penalties that were not given to Huddersfield Town in their multi-million pound play off against Nottingham Forest for the right to play in the English Premier League in 2022-23. Given the financial stakes, these were potentially huge errors. There were many people, including former referees, who think that at least one of these penalties should have been awarded. Who decides if they are called ‘right’ when the VAR balance sheet is finally assessed at the end of last season? It’s worth looking at what the Premier League says on its website about the use of VAR. Its starting position is the advice given by IFAB in the laws of the game. More specifically, as detailed on the following page, the Premier League states precisely that…
· The VAR will not review incidents outside of the four match-changing situations: goals; penalty decisions; direct red-card incidents; and mistaken identity.
· It will not review, for example, fouls or handballs in the middle of the pitch when there is no goal or penalty decision.
· It will not review the decision to award a corner instead of a goal-kick, even if the corner produces a goal.
· This is because the VAR will only check the attacking possession phase that led to the goal, and the starting point is limited to the immediate phase, in this instance the corner being taken.
The Roy Aitken ‘throw-in,’ the ‘Ronaldo corner’ and the Nottingham Forest goal referred to above all come under the second and third rules above and in each case would not result in a decision being overturned. This, in my view, contradicts the first rule,’ where “only match-changing situations” are considered. Aitken’s taking of a throw that (I am pretty sure) he knew wasn’t for his side and Ronaldo’s corner (if it had led to a goal), would have certainly been “match-changing,” while Forest’s goal from the corner against West Brom (albeit due to a refereeing error in giving them a throw-in that they shouldn’t have had) put them two in front and helped them go on to win comfortably. In other words, it was match-changing.
More than a few pundits, not infrequently with a (usually well-known) bias towards one team, are all for VAR when it favours their side, or a Scottish side in European competition, but become less enthusiastic when it looks like it is going against their team. Unfortunately, now the genie is out of the bottle, I suspect that VAR will not stop where it is now. Who would bet against European leagues at some future date, with even bigger sums of money available to the participants? If/when this happens, the desire ‘to get it right’ will lead to complaints that, for example, a corner was mistakenly given and from that the subsequent sequence of play led to a goal being scored. And what will happen in those instances in games where an offence is committed and seen by the TV cameras but not by the referee? Currently, nothing happens. On 28th November 2021, in a match between Brentford and Everton, a Brentford player clearly held an Everton forward by the shirt in the penalty area. The TV pundits were told that it had been noticed by the VAR but, “The VAR check said there was no clear and obvious error, but if the penalty had been given it was unlikely to have been overturned.” Think about that non-sequitur for a second...
Then, in a match between Tottenham and Liverpool in December 2021, Harry Kane, the Spurs centre-forward was only booked for a challenge that was universally condemned and considered worthy of a red-card. Later in the same game, the referee, having booked Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, was asked by the VAR to review his decision, which he subsequently overturned and gave Robertson a red card. The obvious question was why he had not been asked to review the Kane decision. And, of course, the key point in all this is that the Robertson decision will be adjudged to be correct when VAR is being justified by the Premier League and the officials, as will the Kane one, when it is more than arguable that both were wrong. The official stats, naturally, show VAR is working. Lies, damned lies and statistics come to mind…"
Yes, VAR sucks, and it will destroy the main reason we all go to matches - to celebrate a goal and be caught up in the excitement of the moment. Still, what do the fans know...?