Video Assistant Referee Can You Review Yourself Please?
Words by Alexi Barnstone
Radical changes are afoot in the game of football. In recent years the game has seen the introduction of many technological advancements that are lauded by FIFA for improving the game’s fairness, accuracy and punctuality. It started with the goal line decision technology. Scanners pick up when the entire ball crosses the goal line and instantly notify referees of the fact, ensuring that no goal slips through the cracks. A solution England fans, and Frank Lampard particularly, wish had arrived before a knockout fixture against Germany in the 2010 World Cup.
The newest technological fix to permeate the world of football is Video Assistant Referees (VAR), a group of referees sat in a replay centre that review the live action from all angles and inform the centre referee if he needs to take a second look at a decision.
In theory VAR is the final solution to guaranteeing all calls are made correctly, creating the perfectly refereed match. The reality is far from it. VAR has birthed a new era of referee contentions, criticisms and controversies. Where its technological predecessors bask in praise VAR find itself facing stark criticism.
With VAR comes the expectation that in game decisions will be perfected, but was it so flawed before? And can VAR actually improve the accuracy? Unlike American football, where the rules are extraordinarily black and white, European football has many grey areas open to subjective interpretation.
Take for example the hand ball rule. A penalty is given if a ball strikes the arm of a player inside the box. However, whether the call is made is contingent on the position of the arm. If the arm is ruled to be in an ‘unnatural position’ then the call is made. If it appears the player had no chance to move the arm out of the way then it is not given. It is up to the referee to decide whether the arm is naturally positioned or not. Although some argue that VAR gives the referee a better chance of making this decision, it also skews his interpretation of the event. Watching slow motion replays of live action may make it seem that the player had a chance to move his arm even if in real time he could not.
Plenty of contention already surrounds VAR decisions on penalties. The 2018 World cup saw a record number of penalties given for an international competition, and by no small measure was this a result of VAR. The World Cup final featured a penalty given to France for a dubious hand ball call. In real time it was barely possible to see that the ball struck the players arm, even the players of France did not appeal. But after VAR review the penalty was given, profoundly changing the dynamic of the game. France went on to win the World Cup.
Job Fransen, a Lecturer in Skill Acquisition and Motor Control at the University of Technology Sydney, writes in the Conversation about the differences between intuitional thinking and analytic thinking.
With VAR we see a slowing of the game. Instead of making split second decisions based on their decades of experience referees take time to analyse a situation, engaging an entirely different form of thinking. This distinction is between system 1 and system 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is reactional, intuitive and quick. System 2 is slow, deliberate and analytic. Each form of thinking operates differently, and referees are trained to react in system 1 thinking. VAR may not actually assist them in their ability to make decisions, it just changes the way the conceive of the problem at hand and address it. Instead of trusting their gut, which predicates on decades of experience, they deliberate.
In the last round of Champions League games two teams managed to survive knockout on a VAR reviewed penalty decision. Manchester United and Porto are still in the competition because of this system. Both were dubious decisions.
VAR also has a significant effect on the flow of the game. When a call comes into question the centre referee halts proceedings and moves to the side of the pitch to review the game. Often the game comes to a complete standstill for minutes. Many footballers are fond of the sport for its uninterrupted flow, 90 minutes of action with a short halftime. VAR adds yet another jolting obstacle to the games progression. Football is a flow sport, teams wane and off in their dominance throughout its course. VAR, like Neymar, pose another barrier to letting the game breathe.
The VAR system also has an immense impact on fans’ perceptions of the referee. In what once was a hostile yet flawed environment, referees could make the odd mistake and find forgiveness. VAR radically shifts this dynamic. With the notion of a perfect system comes the expectation of zero faults. Now, referees face the chopping block from the footballing community like never before. Even with the new technology mistakes happen and decisions are wrongly made. Wrong decisions that may once have gotten a pardon and now lambasted with full force, the claim to ‘only be human’ is no longer viable. Even the commentators fall into this new camp of judgement. It doesn’t take many game before you watch one where a commentator denounces a referee for a wrong call after VAR. The ignominy of wrong decisions is compounded this technology.
VAR is the most recent step in our strive for perfect football governance. But we must ask, is it really worth it? Has it truly bettered our game or sedated it with a complex and time consuming mid game process that has not improved the decision making of referees? To this end, we must question the use of VAR and what it is doing to our beautiful game.