Video referees: has football gone too VAR?

Saturday 2 November, 13:1013:50, Level G StudioFestival Attractions

Video assistant referees (VAR) were introduced into football for the 2018 World Cup in order to make the sport fairer. For too long, erroneous decisions were having a huge impact not only upon individual matches, but on entire tournaments. A notorious example was in 2009, when Ireland was denied the chance to appear at the 2010 World Cup as a result of a goal set up by France’s Thierry Henry, who had used his hand to control the ball – something obvious from TV replays. The argument goes that if VAR had existed, such examples of injustice would be removed from football. After some early teething problems, FIFA stats do indeed suggest that the number of egregious decisions has fallen sharply as a result.

But the attempt to use VAR to make the game fairer has, in many ways, opened up a can of worms. One problem is that the interpretation of the rules of the game using technology has exposed the fact that such rules are often subjective. For example, the modern offside law does not disallow goals if an attacking player in an offside position is ‘inactive’ – but that judgement is necessarily subjective. There are limitations, too: even with a video replay, it’s not always clear if a player has been tripped or has dived. Hence, while VAR has improved the accuracy of many decisions, technology has also highlighted the difficulties of being a neutral referee of a game of football, seemingly raising people’s expectations without always fulfilling them. Moreover, the decision-making process can be time consuming and cumbersome. That is just about bearable in a stop-start game like cricket, but grates in a sport that is supposed to be in almost-constant flow like football.

Some also argue that something is lost in reducing the number of post-match points of contention. VAR has deprived fans of something to argue about – which, given that the action on the pitch is not always scintillating, is half the fun of the game for many fans. For example, while unfair to England’s players, Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal at the 1986 World Cup remains a talking point to this day. But are such complaints trivial next to the benefit of getting the big calls right more often?

What is the solution? Some have said we don’t need VAR, just better referees. Does VAR let referees off the hook, serving to reduce standards? Is the problem not technology but the rules – and do we need better rules for the referee to interpret, that reduce the subjective element? When we wait four years for a World Cup, isn’t it worth waiting 90 seconds to make sure the right team wins? Has technology changed the game for the better or is it time to review VAR?