The Video Assistant Referee (VAR), a system of using video replays to assist on-field decision-making in football, was formally approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body which defines the rules of the game, back in 2016. Since then, it has been used in competitions in Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia and the U.S. It was seen for the first time in a FIFA competition at the 2017 Confederations Cup before being deployed at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. It made its much-awaited debut in the UEFA Champions League this year, and true to form, was not without controversy. In the marquee quarterfinal clash between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, two game-changing decisions were made after intervention by VAR. Fernando Llorente’s winner for Tottenham was allowed to stand following a review but Raheem Sterling’s goal, in the dying moments of the tie, which could have sent City through, was cancelled.
How does it work?
The use of VAR is limited to four situations — whether a goal should stand or be ruled out because of potential violations, penalties, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity. A VAR team will communicate with the on-field referee when it spots a “clear” error. Alternatively, the referee may ask for a review himself and receive input to make an objective decision (like an offside call) or choose to watch the footage of the incident on a screen by the side of the pitch before arriving at a subjective decision (like judging a foul).
Has it improved decision-making?
Thus far it has been a mixed bag for VAR, though recent evidence suggests that it is moving in the right direction. In the recent Champions League knock-out matches, the system did succeed in eliminating the apparent mistakes. Marcus Rashford’s dramatic stoppage-time penalty for Manchester United away at Paris Saint-Germain was awarded only after a VAR review. In Real Madrid’s match against Ajax in Amsterdam, the referee disallowed Nicolas Tagliafico’s goal for the hosts after determining that Dusan Tadic was offside.
Have the critics been won over?
Not entirely, though they seem to finally see the point in its introduction. Two of the biggest concerns when VAR was first adopted were that it would affect the flow of the game with its repeated interruptions and that it would eliminate the “human feeling” of the sport by undermining the referee’s authority. The criticism regarding the tempo of play did have some merit. In an FA Cup tie between Tottenham and Rochdale in London in early 2018, there were as many as 10 reviews, each lasting nearly a minute, while fans and players waited for the decisions. To address such a scenario, UEFA, in the Champions League, has ensured that the replays which the referee will see through the VAR monitor will also be broadcast, so that both fans and players can be part of the experience. UEFA’s Twitter account even explained why Ajax’s goal against Madrid was ruled out. In the trade-off between the number of disruptions and the correct decision being made, it is easy to see to which side the balance will tilt.
But the argument that with VAR, the human feeling is lost isn’t entirely tenable. VAR only serves as a recommendation tool for the referee, who must still always make the final decision. Unlike cricket, the technology isn’t in the hands of the players. So it cannot be used as a tactical tool to slow the game down. In fact, players who goad the referee to use VAR will receive a yellow card. A good experienced referee will mostly follow the ‘minimum interference-maximum benefit’ doctrine, thus resulting in fewer stoppages. Another upshot is that VAR works on the ‘justice for all’ principle as against ‘justice for some’ like in cricket and tennis where technology is pretty useless once players exhaust the fixed number of reviews.
What lies ahead?
It has to be accepted that VAR isn’t an exact science. A few decisions will remain debatable even after technological intervention. For example, in the Llorente goal discussed above, the ball appeared to brush his arm, but the referee made the subjective call that it was unintentional and did not hand undue advantage. There have also been instances where handballs have been decided with slow-motion replays, like in the last World Cup final between France and Croatia, which made the act of handling look worse than it actually was. All of this means the system needs constant refining. If it is also accompanied by a behavioural shift on the part of players, so that they do not dive for a penalty or appeal for a non-existent handball, it will be the best of both worlds.
(Adapted from The Hindu)