VAR Sucks (the joy out of the game)

Date: 7th November 2023

When a fan pays his or her money – usually about £25 for adults – to see their team, the one thing they want more than anything else is to be caught up in the moment the ball enters the opposition net and the referee signals a goal for their side.  Then we get to our feet, exultant, triumphant and roaring with excitement.  Hopefully, our team will score more than the opposition and we’ll get to cheer at the final whistle, but that moment when a goal is scored is what we really live for during the 90 or so minutes of the match.

Now we have VAR, which has removed this single most important element of a football match for fans of Scottish Premiership clubs. We have to wait – often for minutes – for a decision, which then either causes us to rage at its manifest unfairness – or roar again, as much in relief as in exultation.  And even if the decision is in our favour, that second roar is curiously unsatisfactory, because our initial enthusiasm has evaporated while we bit our nails and watched the official having a conversation with the VAR which we can’t hear and then look on as he bends over a screen we can’t see to look at photos we can’t see and which, for all we know, create a different image in the referee’s mind to one taken a fraction of a second earlier/later would have.  Yes, be in no doubt, VAR is ruining football.

That may be the principal reason why VAR sucks, but it’s not the only one.  Let’s look at one of the key arguments put up by its proponents…

Firstly, we are told that VAR eliminates errors.  That this is clearly not the case is demonstrated with monotonous regularity every week across the UK.  Ah, but (we are told) it eliminates key errors, that’s the difference. It makes the game ‘fair.’ We can see if someone is really offside or not, or whether a foul was committed, or whether the ball brushed someone’s hand which was “in an unnatural position.” It means, we poor deluded fans need to understand, that we get more things right.  A wrong decision, we are told, could potentially cost a club £millions.

To support this, before VAR was introduced in Scotland, Crawford Allan, the Head of Refereeing at the SFA, said on the radio that VAR had increased the number of correct decisions made by officials. Obviously, at that time there were no figures for Scotland because VAR had not yet been introduced here, but the Premier League in England claims that the number of correct key decisions has risen, from 84% to 94% during a match. I do wonder what is the basis for these figures? What constitutes a ‘key’ decision? The statistic above just seems to be trotted out, without any supporting evidence. Is this simply officials checking their own homework?  Who decides what was ‘wrong’ in the past and what datasets are used to show the ‘improved’ figures.  How much subjectivity is involved?  Has any proper statistician been involved to substantiate the referees’ approach?  I’m happy to be proved wrong, but as we’ve never seen the methods used to produce these ‘improved’ figures we have no way of knowing…

The arguments around the changes in the laws, especially handball, are for another day, but the way in which these law changes are applied when VAR is implemented is another real cause for complaint. A major issue is that VAR only applies to the ‘active phase of play.’  Just a few examples about the ‘active phase of play’ shows that the arguments about fairness and getting it right are nonsense.

Let’s look at the suggestion that a wrong decision could cost a club £millions. On that basis, where do we stop with VAR?  If a throw-in is (knowingly or otherwise) taken by the wrong side and from it they attack for several minutes, force a corner and then score, is that goal any more or less legitimate for the time that has elapsed since the shy was taken? This actually happened in a game which I watched live on Sky, between Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion on 18th April 2022, when both sides were in close competition for a play-off place to get into the Premier Division (with all the £millions that implies).  In this instance, the referee over-ruled his linesman, who had correctly given West Brom the throw, and with the Albion players all moving up the pitch in anticipation of their throw-in, Forest capitalised, took the throw quickly and forced the ball forward, gained a corner and scored from it, going two up in the match. Being the second-tier of English football, there was no VAR, but, even if there had been it would not have mattered because the error occurred in an earlier phase of the game.  Forest went on to win the match comfortably. But the potential cost to West Brom of that decision was enormous.  In what way can this possibly be ‘fair?’  There was a famous, similar incident in an Old Firm Cup final in Scotland, from which the only goal of the game was scored, but even today with VAR it would not have been looked at because it was not in the active phase of play.  A year or so ago I watched a match between Chelsea and Manchester United in which Ronaldo was clearly offside when receiving the ball: he then ran on and the ball eventually deflected off a Chelsea defender for a corner.  If he had scored it would have been disallowed, but because he won a corner the match continued.  If Manchester United had scored from the corner the goal would have been given and all hell would have broken loose – and quite rightly.  Just why anyone thinks this makes sense is beyond me.

All this tells me, as do all the former referees I know (and I know quite a few, having written a book recently about Scottish refereeing), that VAR will not, cannot, stop where it is.  It will continue until football becomes (even more) like rugby, a stop-start, tediously boring game where technology determines the result as much as the actions of humans.  At this point, sport ceases being a game, but instead is effectively a computer game.  However, the first time a big club loses a major final or other crucial match because of a situation like the one in the West Brom v Forest game, the demand for VAR to be extended into other areas will be persistently and insistently made.  Money talks….

Let’s now look at another aspect of the way in which VAR is implemented, specifically the slow-motion replays for potential penalties. No-one in the ground can see any incident in anything other than normal time, so why are we introducing this level of forensic detail into the game? We have got to the situation – again like rugby – where the video is ‘rock and rolled’ backwards and forwards to see precisely where the ‘contact’ took place. It’s still highly subjective and consequently it’s a farce because any additional ‘rigour’ that might be applied comes down to one human’s view of what has happened. We might as well just watch a computer simulation of a match. Painful as it is when your team loses a goal after such ‘video analysis’ it is important to remember that this is a game between humans, with all the potential for error and unpredictability that implies. Mistakes are made, more frequently by players than referees in most matches. Suck it up, go out for a pint and complain about it, then go home and wait till the next time, when you might get the decision and it will be your chance to rejoice. That’s how it used to be and the football world kept on turning. Heck, England even won the World Cup with such a stroke of luck.

Another thing about the way VAR works that annoys football crowds is how second-phase offside is practised nowadays, where the Assistant Referee has to wait for a move to play out before raising his or her flag, even though it was clear from outer space that a player was offside earlier in the move.  As many commentators have noted, it will just take one famous player to suffer a serious injury while play is pointlessly continuing in this second-phase for the money men who run the top clubs to step in and demand a change.

Before I close, here are a couple of other points to add further weight to my argument.

I once had a conversation with an experienced football administrator in which he suggested that the beauty of the laws of football is that they are capable of being universally applied anywhere in the world. As is obvious, VAR is not universally applied, nor is it ever likely to be, simply because of the cost involved.  Those playing on the local playing fields are not going to see five-minute halts to consider an offside decision.  There are now two sets of rules in football: one for the rich and one for the rest. 

In the future, who doubts that the world’s biggest clubs and Leagues will not demand that ‘we’ – by which they mean ‘they’ – get it all correct?” In other words, it won’t just be “clear and obvious errors,” but any error.  In the race between technology striving instantly to make the correct decision and the desire of the biggest clubs’ owners, television companies and national FAs to maximise their income, money will win and referees will be pressurised to extend the scope of VAR.  If we take the wish “to get it right,” to its logical conclusion, that means overriding officials for each and every error, on the grounds that any one of them might have changed the result of a match.  That’s lunacy, but once the genie is out of the bottle there is no putting it back. And, if you think back to pre-VAR days, we always used to say that the referee had had a good game if no-one noticed him…

The media are, by and large, solidly behind VAR. For journalists, it’s a godsend, creating yet more opportunities for them to create stories and stir controversy. Their argument, that is constantly advanced (I heard it on Radio Scotland recently), is that it enables the right decision to be made and, moreover, that the technology and the speed with which VAR is interpreted are improving rapidly. That is only partially true, but this still does not detract from the fact that in too many instances VAR does not actually result in a ‘right’ decision; being still, as in the pre-VAR days, dependent on a human evaluating a situation. Two referees are perfectly capable of coming to different decisions on a penalty after being advised by VAR and then watching a replay on the screen. But in the meantime, fans are seething with impatience, deprived of the primary reason for attending a match, to wit, being lost in the joy of celebrating a goal for their team. Make no mistake: VAR has fundamentally changed football for the worse.

Technology will play an increasing role in football in the years to come, but to work how I believe most fans want it to work, VAR would have to use technology that can provide virtually instantaneous decisions.  That’s for an ideal world (and another article perhaps), but for the present there are good reasons why there is virtually no chance VAR will be binned, although that doesn’t mean that fans should not shout from the rooftops that VAR is ruining our enjoyment of football.  Sadly, though, football is one of the very few industries where the customers’ views are frequently ignored when they clash with the will of those running the game.  To illustrate the hypocrisy involved, let me finish by quoting the mission statement of IFAB, as stated on their website:

“The mission of The IFAB is to serve the world of football as the independent guardian of the Laws of the Game. As the only body authorised to decide and agree changes to the Laws of the Game, we listen to the football community, with the goal to improve and develop the game for players, match officials and fans while protecting and strengthening the spirit and simplicity of football.”

“We listen to the football community?” “Improve the game for fans?” “Protecting the simplicity of football?” They are having a laugh.  The first Scottish Football Supporters Association survey of VAR in Scotland, carried out (and organised by me) a year ago, showed clearly that fans do not like VAR. In fact, over 90% said VAR takes too long to make a decision and, more damningly, a majority (56%) would rather tolerate more incorrect decisions than tolerate the disruption to matches caused by VAR. In England, the Football Supporters Association carried out a survey this year which showed that nearly two-thirds were opposed to VAR and nearly 80% rated their experience of VAR as poor or very poor.  As I said, what other industry refuses to listen to its customers like this…?

VAR sucks the joy out of the game.  Let’s stop it now until the tech is instantaneous and truly adds precision. Our officials are unfairly abused over VAR in almost every game: it would be greatly to their and the game’s advantage if this was no longer the case. Technology can help them: VAR, as it is presently organised and implemented, does not.

Alastair Blair

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