Caution required with VAR developments in football

For a long time it seemed like a great idea. For a long time many wondered why football was so behind the curve compared to other sports such as rugby and cricket. For a long time it seemed like the only logical thing to do. VAR, which stands for Video Assistant Referee just in case you live on Mars, was initially a welcome addition to a sport which had resisted change for so long. VAR refers to the use of a match official who reviews decisions made by the head referee with the use of video footage and communication via a headset. It is used when the referee appears to have made a contentious decision and would like to take a second look at the conclusion he or she has made.

It’s only November, but already fans up and down the country are used to the sight of a referee trotting over to the screen on the side of the pitch, often accompanied by either partisan boos or cheers, in order to reassess the decision they’ve made. This is the first season in which VAR has been used in the Premier League, and it’s undoubtedly been one of the key talking points of the year. There is at least one thing everyone can agree on: that nobody agrees on whether or not they agree with it. 

Before looking at the merits and fallbacks, let’s first glance at the impact it’s had so far in the Premier League. It’s been used 16 times to overturn goals, five times to award penalties, and, somewhat surprisingly, only once for a red card. VAR has the power to review goals, check penalty decisions, redirect red cards, and rare cases of mistaken identity. It is also interesting to look at the teams it has benefitted. Crystal Palace and Leicester for example, both of whom are riding relatively high this season, have benefited by a margin of +3 points from the use of VAR, whilst Chelsea have been the team most negatively affected by it with a margin of -4 (to go alongside the dubious handball decision that denied them a winner in their thrilling game with Ajax last week). 

The heart of the debate comes down to the issue of human error in sport, and whether one should prioritise fairness, which the use of VAR undoubtedly looks to champion, or whether entertainment, shock and controversy should remain the cornerstones of professional football. It’s a debate that is very hard to answer, and many critics suggest it comes down to which side of the VAR decision you fall on. 

But here is where it gets tricky. One can’t deny that at times referees make howlers: Frank Lampard’s goal that wasn’t against Germany, Thierry Henry’s blatant handball against Ireland, and all the rest. It’s the pain and anguish felt by fans and neutrals alike from such decisions that have led to the innovation of VAR, geared towards making the game fairer for all. 

However, the flip side of this is a sapping of the immediate emotions felt by fans and players once a decision is made, given the number of times VAR is used to overturn a decision. Yet arguably worse is when a goal is awarded after much deliberation and the subsequent reaction isn’t nearly as passionate as what it usually would be.

For all its minute details, technicalities and science, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that sport is entertainment. It is one of the many extensions of the human condition, one which allows us to express ourselves and react in a whole variety of ways, and for that reason we love it. The sheer joy felt when a goal ripples the net and a whole stand erupts is unrivalled in importance to the game. Football is drama. It extends beyond the formalities of what goes on on the pitch. We must be careful not to turn it into a laboratory.


Image: C records via Wikimedia Commons

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