VARs: Soccer’s Next Technological Leap

Major leagues across the world to trial assisted refereeing


Soccer is, in many ways, paradoxical. For a sport so forward-thinking in some areas - commercialization, transfer fees, fan engagement, tactics etc. - it remains deeply traditionalist when it comes to refereeing. Entirely sensible refereeing aids have taken far longer than they should to see implementation - goal line technology was used at its first Euros this summer, and only in the 2013/14 campaign did the English Premier League sanction its use.

It’s fair to say that goal line technology has been all but accepted. There is no subjectivity in whether or not the ball entirely crossed the line, and replays generally made the right call incredibly clear even before goal line tech was introduced. In this sense, goal line tech removes human error rather than human subjectivity, and it’s the latter that makes soccer such a enthralling game to watch. In fact, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter acknowledged soccer’s slow adoption of technology but lauded it an integral part of the sport - ‘Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. We don't do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football.’

Refereeing, more generally, is different. The force behind a challenge, whether or not a hand ball was deliberate, whether or not a player has dived - these are all wide open to subjective analysis, and referees have to make decisions on the spot that can often impact a game drastically. There is an entirely unquantifiable joy in debating a refereeing decision like it’s the biggest social injustice of our time. Video refereeing could make the whole thing too automated, too infallible, removing one of soccer’s key talking points: the contentious decision. Officials get 92% of major decisions - goals, penalties, red cards - correct, but the 8% they misjudge make for some fervent debate.

Having said that, a study suggested that ‘errors took place nearly 30% of the time that video replays could help prevents,’ and most fans would doubtless be open to a more accurate system, particularly if it meant their team wouldn’t be subjected to unfair red cards or false offside calls. The questions of whether a lone human referee - with all the wonderful inconsistencies and mistakes that this brings - enhances or detracts from a sporting event are best saved for another day, but every fan has been on the wrong end of a poor decision and accurate refereeing won’t be difficult to sell.

Whatever your opinion, video assistant referees (VARs) are coming. In June, it was announced that major soccer competitions across the world - including the US’ MLS, Germany’s Bundesliga and the Australian A-League - would trial the technology early next year in live matches. The video officiating will be limited to key decisions only, like goals, penalties, sendings off and mistaken identify cases. ‘The IFAB believes the best way to answer the question of whether the use of VARs will improve the game is to test it in different regions,’ said IFAB secretary, Lukas Brud. ‘So we are delighted to already have competitions across four confederations sign up.’

The fact the MLS is among those pioneering the technology is significant. As one of the world’s fastest growing franchises, the MLS is less bound by tradition than its European counterparts and is more adaptive to change as a result. Unsurprisingly, the franchise is leading the way in terms of accepting emerging technology, and could be a key driver in the development and implementation of VARs. The MLS recently held workshops in New Jersey on experiments with VARs, which aimed to look at the practicalities of VARs by testing them live. IFAB’s decision on whether VARs should be widely used in soccer will come in either 2018 or 2019 and, if in favour, the MLS will have had a very large part to play in a sport it’s still relatively new to. 

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