Debating the positives and negatives of fine margins
Football, especially in England, is fast and physical. It requires officials to be perfectly placed, to call decisions that can sometimes be impossible to judge with the naked eye. Add to this the pressure of fans, players and how important these decisions can be for teams and it can be too much for some referees. The abuse these officials get on a match day and on social media is wrong, but the benefit of hindsight for spectators calls their decisions into question, especially when slowed down. Therefore, the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee, which involves a panel of experienced referees who possess multiple angles and are free from matchday stresses, was saw as a positive step for the game, particularly after the success of the Goal Line Technology introduced prior. However, after nearly two seasons of use, it seems every week there is at least one controversial decision coming from Stockley Park. So, is V.A.R better or worse for football, and what should become of it?
Discussions on a video assistant referee have been prevalent in football since the turn of the century, if not longer. There are plenty of high profile examples of referees or linespeople getting it wrong in big or important games. For example, would the “Hand of God” have occurred if the alternative pictures taken by the press had been used? I wonder how many tournaments and storylines would have turned out different if it was not down simply to the referee’s judgment.
Before the introduction of V.A.R, every high profile incorrect decision was met with calls for football to follow the Rugby or Tennis route and have high-detailed video recordings of the incident, and introducing game stoppages to check key decisions in a game. This was further supported due to the success of the Goal Line Technology. Whilst some did not agree with the rules relating to how much of the ball needed to pass over the line to be a goal, it was accurate and fair. A key decision which showed its importance was during 2019’s game between Manchester City and Liverpool, where City defender John Stones cleared the ball off the line, with his team eventually going on to win 2–1. The Goal Line Technology showed the ball was only 11mm off being classed as a goal, and the referee would have likely classed it as a goal had the tech not told him different. This game was vital in City’s comeback to win the Premier League title against Liverpool, which would not be possible had they lost the game or drew it. Therefore, this positive decision led to the introduction of V.A.R.
Problems with V.A.R
From its introduction, several issues has plagued its use. Some of these issues were considered as part and parcel of having this system, whilst others were only discovered during its first full season in the Premier League.
Firstly, the obvious issue was the potential for how it would delay the game. The referees at Stockley Park would need time to make sure they would get the correct decision and look at all the different angles, and it would take even longer if the referee was called upon to look at the pitchside monitor to confirm or overturn his decision. However, some decisions have taken 5 minutes, and the minutes added on for stoppage time sometimes do not reflect this delay.
Secondly, there is the issue of taking the enjoyment out of seeing your team score for fans. I can attest to this — most football fans can no longer celebrate goals properly without checking for a handball, foul, or offside in the replay. There is an uneasiness over whether a goal will stand or not, which makes the game worse and ruins the thrill of the sport.
Thirdly, there is the complacency of those using the system. Some issues which would seemingly be needed to be checked are ignored by some officials, and other decisions which seem accidentally are checked. You also have some decisions which do not seem correct, such as offside lines seeming to not be straight or penalty decisions being questionable. Whilst the technology may be there, it cannot cover mistakes made by referees in some instances.
What should become of it?
Now, many people are calling for the end of VAR, for the reasons previously given. This has caused a split in fans, with some arguing it is beneficial to the sport. So what could be the problem? It seems people have issue with the rules of the sport, not the actual system or the referees for the most part.
To give an example, the offside calls in the Premier League are becoming more and more farcical. Whilst it may have benefited my club, the offside call in this season’s Merseyside Derby on Sadio Mane was not fair, but right under the law. Therefore, the law should be changed. Instead of a player being offside for any part of their body being offside, it should be altered so it is only parts of the body of which you can score goals, including the feet or head, and not arms or shoulders. It should only be when the striker recieves an advantage from being in that offside position, such as having a head start in a foot race or his head in front of the defender’s, that the decision should be offside.
Similarly, the handball rule should be altered. Thankfully, this rule has been changed to come into effect next season, in instances of accidental handball leading to goal-scoring opportunities or goals. This area has been highlighted in recent months, with Premier League strugglers Fulham disallowed a crucial goal against London rivals Tottenham and Newcastle losing 2 points against Liverpool due to similar circumstances. Therefore, the sooner this rule is introduced, the better.