The mention of the word VAR brings dread to football fans across the Premier League and the major competitions in Europe. The video assistant referee was brought into the game to prevent mistakes from the on-field officials from costing teams in their respective battles for titles and survival.
However, the use of technology and the marginal nature of decisions has in turn brought further controversy to the game. Players can no longer celebrate goals without the distinct fear that their effort will be overturned by VAR by being a millimeter offside or having brushed the ball with arm.
Few issues have brought supporters together more than their dislike of the system and its perceived failings. There have been widespread calls for VAR to be removed from football, although governing bodies from around Europe have been unmoved thus far.
In a telling example, Borussia Dortmund saw their hopes in the Champions League dashed by a controversial call to award a foul against Jude Bellingham after he scored against Manchester City. The goal could have made the difference in the tie in the favor of the German side, but the decision went City’s way, who are now the leading contenders with William Hill in the Champions League betting odds to win the crown at +130.
The perceived failure of VAR has been surprising. Technology has been successfully deployed in major sports across the world, including tennis and cricket. Indeed, it would be difficult to comprehend those two sports in particular without the decision review system, which deploys Hawkeye technology to great effect.
Fans in tennis cheer when the review system is deployed over a marginal line call. Players readily accept the result more often than not, while the whole process is complete within a minute. Cricket too has taken the system to heart and has made solid improvements regarding how and when the technology can be deployed. Players have voiced disagreements with decisions even with Hawkeye in place, but there is a resounding belief that on the whole it has benefitted the sport and eased the pressure on umpires in the process.
Football has not warmed to the idea, and even without the high-profile mistakes and infuriating marginal calls, there has been a feeling that VAR has disrupted the natural flow of the game. Penalty and red card decisions have taken too long to process, while offside calls have been left far too late by the linesmen which have nearly resulted in serious injuries. Unlike tennis and cricket, there are not many natural stoppages in football. Even corners and throw-ins are relatively brisk actions. At times the process has been too robotic and procedural; that is just not in the heart of the game.
Then there have been the decisions themselves. Whereas in tennis and cricket, the technology has straightforward parameters to work between e.g. the ball has either hit the line or it has not, or it has pitched in line with the stumps or it has not, offside decisions in football are not as clear cut. The video assistant referee has been forced to draw lines on a screen to determine whether a player is beyond the last man. This has not been an exact science due to the lack of a four-dimensional image. Even when the lines have been drawn correctly, players have been denied goals because of the position of their armpit.
Incidents such as those have left a sour taste in the mouth of players and managers along with supporters and even neutral spectators. The Premier League along with the major governing bodies of the game are heavily invested in making the system work. However, instead of the current processes easing the strain on officials, they are now coming under the spotlight more than ever. Therefore, all parties involved in the game must configure a way on how to make VAR a success.
A solution could be to follow the method of tennis and cricket. Instead of a review after every key decision, managers and captains are allowed two challenges per game to overturn or inspect a call. At the least, this system would prevent the flow of the game from being disrupted, although there will no doubt be controversial calls at some point given the issues marrying the rules of football and technology together.
The governing bodies and all parties involved in the game are going to have to have an honest and frank discussion about the technology as the current system is not working to the benefit of anyone in its current state.