The operational wobbles of football’s Video Assistant Referee system are frequently debated.
VAR, quickly abbreviated in the lexicon of the game as if it were Louis van Gaal or Kevin-Prince Boateng, is already in use in some of Europe’s elite leagues this season despite the nakedness of its failure during what we were told was a trial in international football.
The trial was a farce and VAR’s flaws are being uncovered in the very games whose supposed importance necessitated its introduction in the first place. And its flaws are many.
In Germany and Italy the use of VAR has brought with it the confusion that invited criticism when it was used in the FIFA Club World Cup last year. A new front has now been opened up for the haranguing of referees.
The system’s application has been the subject of scrutiny even amongst those who are broadly in favour of its deployment. Its supporters simply want match officials to be assisted in reaching the correct decisions – and let’s not take all day if it isn’t too much to ask.
VAR struggles in both regards and too often fails in the first. For all the investment, all the ceremony, the decisions still come down to human interpretation.
Followers of the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument against goal-line technology predicted that the use of technology would soon stop being about black and white matters of technical fact and start being about opinions.
But all of this is immaterial. VAR’s ability or otherwise to achieve officiating perfection is meaningless because football is striving for infallible accuracy it doesn’t need and shouldn’t want.
VAR cannot resolve this perceived need for every big decision to be made correctly. But the question too few of us are asking is whether we should be demanding perfection at all. It is, after all, just a game. What’s a missed offside or a fluffed red card decision in the fullness of the sport?
This was one of the arguments against goal-line technology, too, but the nature of goal-line decisions at least means right and wrong can be clarified to a high level of accuracy. What we don’t know is how many of those calls would actually have been made incorrectly without the tech.
The decisions now subject to VAR are much less conclusive, and seeking to purify them is damaging. VAR is overruling assistant referees whose decisions, even on second viewing, would have been deemed correct on the gantry this time last year.
One example is the policing of an offside line a nanometre wide, shades of doubt obsoleted by freeze frames that show a toe gaining the all-important illegal advantage.
When Chile played Cameroon in the FIFA Confederations Cup in the summer, Edu Vargas scored for Chile and the goal went for review because of a possible offside. The assistant referee didn’t raise his flag – maybe because the prudent approach is to allow the outcome to develop, maybe not – and the VAR process led to the goal being ruled out.
The verdict took far too long to reach as Vargas was the subject of a belated virtual offside flag and the goal was chalked off. But there were other problems too. Firstly, the margin was so fine that you’d have a tough time justifying the assistant referee being corrected.
Secondly, Vargas wasn’t offside. It was disputed at the time, rendering VAR a nonsense at a stroke in any case, but he wasn’t. On a normal replay before the summer nobody would even have bothered to question it. VAR turned a right decision into a wrong one, during a trial, and the technology was being used in Serie A and the Bundesliga weeks later.
In the latter, Timo Werner of RB Leipzig might recall Gonzalo Jara’s attempt to elbow him in Germany’s game against Chile at the Confederations Cup. Again, the incident went to review and the referee went to the touchline to watch the footage.
He gave a yellow card where the technology available to him had provided undeniable evidence for a red. VAR failed to root out a referee’s erroneous interpretation of a decision, during a trial, yet Gianni Infantino declared the trial a success and the technology will be used at the FIFA World Cup.
Yes, VAR is here. And, with the media and football public completely bought into the charge towards clinical pseudo-justice, it’s not going away. We have accepted the absurd primacy of the outcome and that’s that.
But the use of VAR must be reframed. Telling an assistant referee that they’ve got a decision wrong when it was right to the naked eye is not in any way a positive development.
It undermines the official, it gives the advantage to defenders to an unacceptable degree, and it disallows goals that should never have been wiped from existence.
And that’s just when VAR gets it right.