The football’s biggest stage brought the world’s attention to the most debated feature that is new to football. Having previously applied in Serie A and FA Cup matches, the Video Assistant Referee – known shortly as VAR – attracts debate after debate all tournament round. After a few days of being seemingly under the radar, VAR was once again under the spotlight, this time during last night’s World Cup final. However, the debate that erupted subsequently lies deeper than mere technicalities.
According to NDTV, until the semifinals the VAR had been used on over 440 occasions in 62 matches, with referees decided to review on 19 occasions. Some of those occasions attract more attention than others. World champions France’s opening match against Australia had a decision influenced by VAR. The first one was a challenge by Australian Josh Risdon on Griezmann, in which the referee initially waved off implying that there wasn’t much contact. Upon review seconds after, which was suggested by the VAR team, it turned out that there was contact, and the referee judged that it was enough to bring Griezmann down – penalty then given. Was it a “clear and obvious error”? Debatable.
There were many other VAR-influenced decisions. Dale Johnson of ESPN actually made a complete review of every single decision. Few notables are decision on Ronaldo’s seemingly aggressive contact on Iranian Morteza Pouraliganji, which took the referee quite some time to come with a decision to give a yellow card instead of a red one. In the same game, a decision was also made after review, this time in Iran’s favour, when the video replay suggested that Cedric Soares had handled the ball in the penalty area – or so the referee thought. A similar case happened during the deciding Nigeria v Argentina game, when the ball hit Marcos Rojo’s arm after deflecting off his own head. However, the referee waved it off upon review.
There were inconsistencies in the application of the VAR. Some were spot on, as in the cancellation of the penalty decision during Brazil v Costa Rica after video replay suggested that Neymar dived. Others were very much debatable and may have different outcomes with different referees, like the handball decision in the final. It is inevitable that VAR will be a topic of heated debate, but it’s personally frustrating to see that VAR “ruins the beautiful game” and implies that “technology is taking over”. Until now, I am struggling to comprehend those thought processes.
In competitive, professional football, results matter – A LOT. It can decide whether or not you’re still in the competition or you have to pack your bags. I can imagine it would be very tough to take when the linesman mistakenly rules your deciding goal offside, and you are left to wallow in defeat. Or when you concede a late penalty, only to look at the replay after the match and see that there was no contact. Or the infamous Marrinervision – I’m sure Arsenal fans will pick up on that. The VAR system can alleviate that and make the game as fair as it should be, making the correct decisions which in the end, producing a deserved result – even if players have to delay their celebrations and sit idly on the pitch for a several seconds.
However, VAR is not without its flaws, and it lies on the question of ‘correctness’ – how can referees, with the abundance of help from the technology of video replays allowing them to view the incident from all angles – take so much time to decide the correct decision? And when it is made, why is it still so debatable? Isn’t the comprehension of the rules supposed to enable them to decide? Apparently, the answer is evident in the inconsistencies of VAR.
It is said that the VAR team can only communicate to the on-pitch referee when there is a “clear and obvious error”. Well, how clear and obvious is a “clear and obvious error”? That supposed foul on Griezmann by Risdon had very minimal contact, even it can be argued that it shouldn’t be enough to bring Griezmann down. Cristiano Ronaldo got the same result when he was challenged by Iranian Saeid Ezatolahi in the penalty area. However, Marcus Berg of Sweden didn’t as he was brought down by a challenge by Jerome Boateng – it didn’t even deserve a review from the referee. As for handballs, well, it is extremely difficult to determine whether it is “intentional” or not – except the one by Luis Suarez against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup.
Besides the offside and goal-line rules, decisions are oftentimes not clear-cut, which is why the “clear and obvious error” policy seems a bit far-fetched. I mean how can you decide it’s a clear and obvious error by the referee when it isn’t even clear what constitutes an intentional handball? In times like these, subjectivity from the referees can take over, and in a sport where results matter the most, it can be a bit dangerous and very deciding. Though VAR can surely alleviate obvious and clear-cut errors, the ones that are not so clear and obvious still linger.
What I believe, though, is what the organization does now or will do later to alter the rules of VAR can show how much they value objectivity and fairness in football. This is a question that, to me, underlies the whole VAR debate – which direction should we take football to? Should we appreciate fairness and make sure that the rules and the laws are as black and white as they should be, by determining every limitation possible so that if any error occurs it will be a clear and obvious one? Or should we just, well, let it flow? If a referee misjudged a handball, just let it be a talking point after the game. Enjoy every drama that goes along with it, and just let all those controversies be responded with a simple phrase of “football, bloody hell”. Football, as we know and love, is full of them. Maradona’s “hand of god”, Henry’s suspicious handball against Ireland, Luis Garcia’s “ghost goal”. Maybe it’s just an inevitable part of football, no?
Personally, I’m quite content with the application of VAR, and I hope the rules can be much clearer in the future. If this means anything, I really don’t think the outcome of the game should be decided by the subjectivity of the referee. Isn’t that why rules are there in the first place?