Date: 7th November 2023
As a former FIFA, UEFA, and Scottish senior football referee, I am often asked for my opinion on VAR, usually after a contentious decision. I understand the anti-VAR views to a point, but I put much of it down to the so far imperfect process and possibly the lack of understanding – by many – of the VAR criteria. Yes, it can disturb the flow of the game, but as a referee, I would much prefer to have mistakes cleared up on the pitch as opposed to seeing them affect the outcome of the game on the television afterwards, particularly if it was costing a team valuable points.
Football, in the main, is based on opinion, or rather, on interpretation of the Laws of the Game and that, for me, is the nub of the problem. I fail to understand the huge furore at providing a referee with a chance to review a crucial decision on the pitch to ensure that decisions are given a greater chance to be correct. It will never be perfect, but surely a process which significantly improves the decision making must be better than having no VAR at all? Try as they might, Match Officials can’t see everything as clearly as a bank of television cameras can so having VAR is a tool which I believe the game needs at its top level.
So, why was VAR brought in? Well, people in the game wanted fairness and transparency of decisions. I’d argue that this is exactly what VAR brings right now. A referee, where VAR is available (in many of the top leagues and competitions around the world), gets a chance to review a decision to ensure fairness and people can see (and now hear in some countries) what is being assessed; that is transparency. Of course, not everyone will agree with the reviewed decision, but nothing is hidden, and it is only fair to have a key decision reviewed.
In terms of the actual decisions, there are factual ones, some with an element of subjectivity, and others which are purely based on the opinion of the referee. For example, a ball hitting the hand is a fact and can usually be proved by a VAR review but whether that handball is an illegal hand ball is when the subjectivity (the opinion of the referee) comes into play. In addition, decisions on serious foul play, violent conduct, or denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity are also usually subjective and this is where the arguments are fuelled, and disagreements inevitably occur.
However, for me, the fact that we have at least one other experienced referee reviewing on-field decisions and then giving the match referee the chance to review a crucial decision has got to be better than just relying on the match officials’ initial on – field decision without any opportunity for review and potential correction.
VAR is not perfect and there have been some teething problems (e.g., the time taken to review certain decisions), but the process will evolve. To help improve the process, I would like to see the criteria “Clear and obvious error” changed as the basis for an on-field review (when the referee is sent by VAR to look at the tv monitor at pitch side). An issue under the current process is that VAR might think the referee has maybe not called a major decision correctly but this might not be deemed a clear and obvious error, merely a strong difference of opinion so a VAR review can’t be carried out. Therefore, in its place I’d like to see “Key Decision” being the new criteria for reviewing goals, penalties, and red cards. This would, for instance, also allow the referee to review second yellow cards leading to a red for a player, something which can’t be done under the current system.
Summing up, my view is that it is surely much better to have VAR, to have extra pairs of eyes on the game, and on- field reviews than relying on the team of match officials trying to catch every decision live- as it was back in my day!
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