Much like player wages or home-grown player quotas, the issue of video assistant referees has split the soccer community. On paper, they make the game fairer, but it’s not as simple as just deploying technology as soon as it is available. Though most would agree that any help that can be given to referees to make the right calls should be made available, the purists argue that soccer’s fluidity doesn’t cater for lengthy stoppages, regardless of the benefit. Indeed, the fact that fans in the stadiums cannot see what the referee is seeing, or that the officials’ conversation cannot be heard, makes for protracted silent periods where no one seems to know what exactly is happening.
The mantra of ‘Minimum interference, maximum benefit’ is looking less and less achievable as VAR gets its first real run out, at least in the short term. The International Football Association Board (IFAB)’s technical director, David Elleray, used those words when enthusiastically selling the future of law keeping in soccer to journalists in March. The intentions are obviously good, and there was optimism around VAR’s potential ability to bring clarity to a messy sport, a sport all too obsessed with discussing contentious refereeing decisions.
Throughout this summer’s Confederations Cup - VAR’s teething problems have been clear. Any new technology in sport is bound to confuse those implementing it for a time, but the use of this particular tech has so far bordered on the comical. The narrative of VAR at the Cup was riddled with confusion, cases of mistaken identity, errors, and, most irritatingly, frustratingly long waiting times.
The most glaring VAR mistake came, fittingly, in the final. In the 61st minute, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic stopped play when Chilean Gonzalo Jara elbowed German striker Timo Werner in the face. Werner went down dramatically, and Mazic headed to the touchline to review the incident with VAR. Three minutes passed (a painfully long time in the heat of an international final), and the referee returned to the pitch to show Jara a yellow card, despite there being no indication from the video footage that the elbow was anything less than deliberate (warranting a clear red card). Mazic had the opportunity to put VAR to good, effective use in an (albeit unimportant) cup final and he blew it, throwing the tech’s credibility into question after an already difficult competition.
Consequently, many commentators that originally backed VAR are doubting their position. The Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke ran with the headline ‘I thought video referees would be a good idea… I couldn’t have been more wrong,’ and there is the prevailing sense that, if the Confederations Cup was an examination of VAR, there is no way it passed. He references Paul Ince’s comment that soccer is ‘all about right and wrong decisions,’ that the fluidity a fallible referee allows for is what makes it the most popular sport on the planet.
For VAR to work, it needs to be seamless, near-immediate, and ultimately non-intrusive, a big ask for a machine designed to inject objectivity into inherently subjective decisions. To say that it can work in other sports is to miss the point entirely. It is possible, for example, to quickly determine whether a cricket ball nicked the bat on its way through to the wicketkeeper. It is far more difficult to determine whether a player used ‘excessive force or brutality’ in a challenge without a number of replays and considered deliberation. To get these decisions spot on takes time. VAR may well make its way into soccer if these teething problems can be smoothed out. For now, though, with a World Cup looming in less than a year’s time, soccer may simply not be ready to add further complexity to decision-making. IFAB promised that VAR would end ‘headlines’ and ‘scandals’ around bad decisions. So far, it’s only making more of them.