Video-assisted refereeing (VAR) has dominated World Cup discussions after prompting referees to make controversial, game-changing decisions. It hasn’t lived up to its promise of correcting blatant refereeing errors while minimising interference in play. However, even if it strikes that balance, audiences will be worse off.
VAR involves a group of match officials watching video replays of football games and intervening if they spot a ‘clear and obvious’ mistake by the on-field referee. Its goal is to reduce refereeing errors such as incorrect offside calls or undeserved yellow cards, and also alert the referee to incidents he or she may have missed. For example, the on-field referee disallowed Iago Aspas’ last-gasp equaliser in the Spain-Morocco game after ruling him to be offside, but after VAR officials recommended a review of the incident, he changed his decision and awarded a goal. VAR officials also suggested the referee watch a video of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo pushing an Iranian player without the ball for a possible red card, resulting in the referee showing the striker a yellow card.
VAR hasn’t been implemented correctly in the World Cup. Diego Costa and Pepe’s clash in the Spain-Portugal game was a clear foul but VAR officials didn’t step in, yet they incorrectly rewarded a penalty in the handball review in the Portugal-Iran game. Although it’s impossible to say how the right decisions might have affected the outcomes of those games, it seems likely that Portugal would have topped its group ahead of Spain and would now face Russia rather than Uruguay – a much greater threat to their tournament progression.
The goal of VAR is an admirable one. Most football fans want more accurate refereeing decisions and fewer occasions where their team is robbed of a goal or penalised unfairly. Classic examples include Diego Maradona and Thierry Henry’s handballs in World Cup games, or the ‘hand of God’ and ‘hand of frog’, which resulted in wrongful goals and victories over England and the Republic of Ireland respectively. However, fans’ interest in fair games has to be balanced with their desire for entertaining games of football, and games lose their momentum and flow when referees halt them to consult with VAR officials, run off the pitch to watch incidents several times on a screen, then run back on the pitch. Its introduction has also led to players clamouring for reviews by drawing squares in the air, and rolling around in feigned agony after collisions as they know officials are watching.
Technology, when implemented thoughtfully, has been good for the game. The majority of football fans have welcomed goal-line technology, which alerts the referee with a buzz on the wrist when the ball fully crosses the goal line. It should put an end to incidents such as England’s disallowed goal against Germany in the World Cup in 2010, when midfielder Frank Lampard’s strike crossed the line by several inches. However, one of football’s greatest assets is its lack of interruptions and periods of sustained play, which differentiate it from more staccato games such as cricket, tennis and American football. Repeatedly stopping play and riling up players with copious VAR reviews undoubtedly pulls fans out of their immersion and messes with a match’s rhythm. Possible solutions include limiting players to a number of VAR referrals per game – although VAR officials can still intervene - and showing a yellow card to those who motion for a VAR review, the same punishment they receive if they wave an imaginary card.
Match of the Day commentator Gary Lineker argues one of VAR’s advantages is that its adds drama to mundane games. That novelty will soon wear off, and constraints will have to be introduced to avoid changing football for the worse.