Can we improve VAR?

Date: 9th November 2023

I believe VAR is destroying football and should be scrapped or at least put on hold.  However, there is a counter argument, eloquently made in Stuart Dougal’s blog and I’m well aware that it’s easier to complain than come up with solutions.  Moreover, I know that the chances of VAR being done away with are very low, largely because despite its many faults, those who designed it won’t admit they were wrong, and those who administer it have a vested – and financial – interest in keeping it going. Perhaps the problem is not with VAR per se, but with its excessive use.

I know that in opposing VAR I may be seen to be a traditionalist: a footballing conservative who abhors change, especially technological change.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a football historian, I know that new technologies have been introduced throughout football history.  Goal nets, the referee’s whistle, the changing nature of football boots, the introduction of floodlighting, hot and cold running water in the loos at football stadia.  All these have made a big difference to the nature and enjoyment of the game for players and spectators alike.

Technology already plays, and I believe will continue to play an increasing role in football in the years to come, but to work how I – and I suspect all football fans – want it to, VAR will have to use technology that can provide virtually instantaneous decisions. This issue – the hold-up to the game while we wait for someone to decide what has happened – is one of the areas where VAR has proved most wanting.  But given that the nerdy techies are already building the metaverse, where the digital and real worlds fuse into one, who doubts these same people can’t apply their intellectual horsepower to something relatively simple, like making an offside decision?

The fact is they are already doing so. In May 2021, the Daily Mail (and others) reported that the English Football League had, in October 2019, explored “the use of limb-tracking technology to provide instant calls on offsides.” The 2021 article went on to say that “The system has undergone a successful trial at a Premier League club for the last year, and four teams – Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United – will have it in place next season” and moreover, “The system could be fully operational as soon as 2023.”

This ‘skeletal player tracking system’ has been developed by HawkEye – the same people who provide the goal-line technology that has proved such a success (other than in Scotland where the clubs can’t afford it).  Moreover, HawkEye has been used successfully for many years in other sports, notably cricket and tennis.  It’s not hard to see how this could be adapted for the ball being in or out of play around the touchlines of a football pitch.

If we get to the point where offsides and the ball in or out of play are controlled by technology, with – crucially – the result being available almost instantly, a large part of the job of the linesman/Assistant Referee will have been dispensed with and their roles will change considerably. In this new world, the AR will receive a buzz/message and can put his/her flag up straight away, with no argument and no time wasted. It’s not hard to see the benefit of this.  For a start, all those occasions where the fans at the side of the ground hurl abuse because they think the ball has crossed the line will, by and large, disappear.

Of course, it will be said that there is more to offside than simply looking along the line and therefore humans will still be needed to see if a forward is interfering with play or if the ball was last touched by an opponent. However, if one thinks about the way technology has already evolved, it’s clear that these are not insurmountable obstacles.  Billions are being spent developing driverless vehicles that have instantly to take into account potential movement of cars, changing traffic lights, the idiocy of pedestrians and unfortunate stray dogs, to say nothing of reacting to adverse weather conditions.  Offside may be complicated, but it’s nothing compared to a driverless car making a safe passage through central Edinburgh as the Scottish weather demonstrates its well-known tendency to give us four seasons in one day.  People, especially football officials, may not like the prospect of being made redundant by technology, but it’s been happening since the days of the Luddites – and they didn’t manage to stop it either.  Does anyone really think that it will be impossible to produce technological aids which can deal with the vagaries of the offside law?

Tech is one thing, but another way in which VAR could be made more acceptable is to row back on the way it impinges on far too many aspects of the game.  We have all seen instances where a game is stopped and no-one has a clue why. VAR has seen ‘something’ – the ref is called to the screen and a red card issued or penalty given.

Wasn’t one of the most commonly used arguments to justify VAR that it would only be applied where there were “clear and obvious” errors? Was it not the case that we were told that VAR wouldn’t be ‘re-refereeing’ the game?  This is where we need to focus if we want to get some sanity back into our game.   If the emphasis is changed so that the “clear and obvious” requirement is uppermost in the officials’ minds then a lot of the nonsense we are currently stuck with is removed. For example, if it’s necessary to draw computerised lines across the pitch to show an offside, then, by definition, it’s not clear and obvious.  So, scrap those ridiculous lines showing someone’s laces are offside and we’ll all be much happier.

It should be the same with fouls and most hand balls; if none of the four match officials have deemed an event to be a problem, it will not be a clear and obvious error.   Off the ball incidents are different and VAR’s use here is justified. In the rare event of none of the match officials failing to see a player banjo an opponent when the ball is at the other end, a VAR intervention ought to be made.

Finally, I would also impose a time limit on the review process.  If the VAR can’t decide in 30 seconds, it can’t be clear and obvious.  The game should continue, and we won’t become like rugby where the laws have to be continually changed and then explained to the players and fans as the match proceeds.

In my ideal world, VAR as it is presently organised should be removed from the game until the technology removes the waiting that so infuriates fans across Scotland (and everywhere else).  If that can’t happen (and I understand why refs don’t want to give up their European games and the money they get for doing VAR), then at least some of the halfway-house suggestions here should be considered and, ideally, implemented.

Alastair Blair

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