For decades, football referees were the subject of terrace chants questioning their moral fortitude, waistline and other rather personal matters.
The reason? They often got decisions ‘wrong’ – or, at least, were perceived to have got them wrong by one set of supporters or the other.
But who could blame them? Football is a sport that is played at 100mph, with the ball travelling long distances in short spaces of time – the referee, with just two legs to power them forwards, would often be out of position and not close enough to make an accurate, informed decision.
So along came VAR to help them make better decisions.
The use of video technology dates back years, but the imposition of VAR – first at the 2018 World Cup, before a rollout in the Premier League for the 2019/20 season – was the first time that a video official had the power to impact on the outcome of games.
And it’s amazing how often a ‘fool proof’ technology has posed more questions than it has answered…
What is VAR?
VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee, with the VAR officials operating from a studio with a direct feed to the officials on the pitch via their earpieces.
The VAR officials sit and watch games from their bunker, replaying the action (where required) and utilising a stack of different camera angles to ensure the right conclusions are come to.
Just some of the calls that VAR can adjudicate on include:
- Goal or no goal
- Penalty or no penalty
- Close offside calls
- Straight red cards
- Mistaken identity
The VAR officials are there to assist the match officials, although they have the power to overrule them too in scenarios where the video technology suggests there’s been a ‘clear and obvious error’ or a ‘serious missed incident’.
How Does VAR Work?
All games played in competitions where VAR protocol are in place will be watched by a team of video assistants. If nothing happens during the action that requires their intervention, you wouldn’t even know they were there.
But they’re monitoring every single exchange on the pitch – albeit with a limited remit that only calls them into action in specific scenarios.
The on-field referee makes all of the decisions in a game of football, with VAR only intervening when they have missed a serious incident or where a clear and obvious error has been made.
In these cases, they will message the referee, who wears an earpiece and a watch that act as direct lines of communication with VAR chiefs. They can ‘recommend’ to the match official that they take a look at the replay of an incident – when you see them trotting over to the screen at the side of the pitch, that is exactly what they are doing.
The referee has the final say – they can take the recommendation of VAR, which tends to be the way, or they can trust their own judgement and not take up the advice given by the video officials. This is rare, but it does occasionally happen.
So if a decision is debatable – i.e. if a case can be made for a foul to be given or a ball-to-hand in the build-up to a goal, the VAR officials will only intervene when they feel the referee has made a ‘clear and obvious’ mistake.
Of course, one of the few scenarios where this is superseded is with an offside decision. The assistant referee may have missed an offside, but VAR – thanks to the various lines and angles they draw on-screen – are able to more accurately adjudicate on close offside calls… even when it’s the width of a nose-hair separating a player from being offside or not.
Why is VAR in Football So Controversial?
Even though VAR has provably helped in improving the standards of officiating – the number of ‘correct’ calls being made rose from 82% to 94% in the first season of video use in the Premier League, it’s still considered controversial by many fans of the beautiful game.
Some of the reasons that VAR cheeses off football fans are mechanical. It can take an inordinate amount of time for decisions to be made using video replays, with all angles covered to ensure that the right call is made. As the minutes tick by, everyone involved in the game starts to lose their temper a little more.
There can be a lack of communication and transparency for those within the stadium too. Although VAR machinations are often shown on a video screen within the ground, this is often unaccompanied by audio – so spectators, coaches and even the players themselves are left to guess what is actually being discussed.
Streamlining VAR decision making, and communicating the minutiae of the process, will help to improve the relationship between fans and video officiating.
The other grey area is with the so-called ‘clear and obvious error’ terminology. Clearly, this still requires some element of subjectivism on the part of the VAR officials – it’s their opinion as to whether a mistake has been made.
And so controversial decisions are still being made.
For example, on the opening weekend of the 2023/24 Premier League season, a penalty was awarded against Son Heung-min during Tottenham’s game against Brentford. The referee waved away the appeals of the Bees players, but the VAR officials decided that Robert Jones had made a clear and obvious mistake.
A day later, VAR did not see a clear and obvious mistake when Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana almost decapitated Wolves’ Sasa Kalajdzic at a corner, with referee Simon Hooper also unmoved by the incident. But PGMOL chief Jon Moss later apologised to Wolves boss Gary O’Neil for the VAR error, with Hooper and VAR officials Michael Salisbury and Richard West ‘dropped’ from officiating their next games.https://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/1802353/Man-Utd-Wolves-Onana-VAR-referee-Howard-Webb
VAR was designed to bring more transparency and clarity to decision-making in football. But often, it achieves everything but…
Has VAR Ever Got It Wrong?
The application of VAR technology – and the interpretation of the rules by those who use it – are two different beasts entirely.
Exhibit A: Patrick Bamford being adjudged offside in a game when he pointed to where he wanted a pass to be played – it was ruled that his shoulder was in an offside position.
Was VAR wrong? Factually no. But do we want football to turn into a sport where random body parts of a player can be offside while the rest of them is onside?
Juan Mata was once adjudged offside by VAR when it was clear and obvious to anyone watching that the lines that had been drawn on-screen to make the call were not anywhere close to being straight.
A Brentford equaliser against Arsenal during the 2022/23 season gifted them a point – despite the fact that their player Christian Norgaard was clearly in an offside position. But VAR official Lee Mason was too busy looking at another passage of play and missed it… so the goal stood. In theory, it could have cost Arsenal the title, with Mason quitting from his role at PGMOL after the error came to light.
There have been cases too in which VAR has effectively overruled a referee by suggesting they have made a clear and obvious error – even when said error is wholly subjective.
Thankfully, in time, the number of technical errors made with the video tech – be it wonky lines or ineffective camera angles – have become fewer and fewer. But VAR officials are still being asked to make subjective decisions… and while that’s the case, you have to wonder what’s the point of the technology at all.