Four Ways to Instantly Improve Football’s VAR Experiment

If football worked more like a bona fide business instead of a purely money-making engine, it could learn from its peers and lessen the pain of change

People are saying that the FA Cup has become irrelevant – how wrong they are, in one respect at least.

The recent Liverpool vs West Brom and Tottenham vs Rochdale ties have helped to showcase the worst that football’s nascent video assistant referee (VAR) system has to offer the game.

Long delays and confusion about which incidents were being reviewed were a frustration to participants and spectators alike, and made sure that the engrossing match-ups match would be overshadowed by the awkward implementation of technology.

While VAR has the potential for limiting the injustices so often meted out in the domestic and international game, its application in Europe’s elite leagues is proving unpopular with everyone from commentators to current and ex-professionals.

The VAR experiment is failing to impress across the board and the exasperating fact is that this need not be the case. Football simply does not have learn the hard way: both rugby and cricket have been using video technology at the club and international level for a number of years.

The teething problems overcome by these two very different games ¬– the sporting equivalents of a break-neck dash and a civilised stroll – should help to inform football’s hierarchy as is embarks on its own rush into a more high-tech future.

From an informed arm-chair viewer’s perspective, there are several solutions that could be worked towards almost instantly.

Be more specific about the scope and circumstance of VAR usage

According to football’s governing body, the VAR can be invoked in four “game-changing” situations: goals, penalty decisions, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity.

While these four instances seem to make sense, the definition of “goals” does not. In fact, its meaning could be vast.
According to the former Premier League referee in charge of VAR’s roll-out in US Major League Soccer, any incident that occurs when “a team moves toward the opponent’s penalty area with some purpose” can be subject to VAR review.

Such a loose characterisation has led to instances like Mario Mandzukic’s ghost goal for Juventus vs Atalanta, which was disallowed for an incident that occurred some thirty seconds before he put the ball in the net. Logic would dictate that, like a criminal offence, there should be a time-frame of expiration for felonies on the football pitch as well.

That particular game ended 2-2, and in the post-match press conference, Juventus coach Massimo Allegri called for technology to “only be used on objective situations — offside, in or out of the box, over the line or not” as opposed to “subjective situations”.

Vagary is bound to lead to inconsistency, and a limitation of VAR’s sphere of influence would also help to mitigate some of the controversy it will create.

Be transparent and let deliberations be audio-visible

To stop both players and spectators living in the dark as to what a referee has referred to the VAR, the replays the VAR is reviewing and the communication between on-pitch and “in-gallery” officials should be broadcast on the jumbotrons present at all top-tier stadia.
Not only does it keep those on the field of play in the know, it also turns downtime into part of the spectacle. British Broadcaster and football fan Danny Baker has summed up the dislocation that could become a constant at football matches if the VAR process is an opaque one.

The ref must see what the TV sees

Broadcasters have, effectively, been the game’s VARs since they could push the rewind button, yet the English Premier League’s VAR experiment relies not on the sophisticated, multi-camera TV footage of the professional broadcasters, but on their own more limited system, relayed from a facility near Heathrow Airport.

To deny officials the best possible means to make decisions is obviously counterproductive. Cricket and rugby both tap into television feeds.

Make VAR the good cop

Simulation, defined by the International Football Association Board as a wilful attempt “to deceive the referee e.g. by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled”, is seen by many as a scourge on the modern game.

Many a cheap penalty has been bought by a well-timed dive, and a second yellow card for a phantom elbow to the face.

English games in which VAR has played a part have already seen a drop in the number of fouls committed. The glare of Big Brother’s all-seeing eye has seen a marked change in player behaviour for the better.

This is further borne out in Italy’s Serie A, where there have been 150 fewer yellow cards year-on-year since the institution of VAR in league matches in August 2017.

If the game is hell-bent on introducing technology to stamp out unfairness, then surely those who cheat should never prosper. A VAR-adjudicated act of blatant simulation should be punished not by a yellow but by a red card and a lengthy ban.

If the mere threat of being surveilled has caused footballers to conduct themselves differently, then decisive disciplinary measures could help to eradicate one of the game’s most insidious acts.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia will employ VAR technology at the highest level of the game, for the eyes of billions to see.

If the footballing powers-that-be do not look to cross-sector lessons and get it right before June, then the greatest show on Earth might be overshadowed by the greatest mistake in the game’s history.

Editorial credit: Marcin Kadziolka / Shutterstock.com

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