Is video assistant referee anti-football?

VAR causes further controversy in the latest round of Champions League fixtures.

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‘Referees only have one aim: to protect themselves.’ When asked to discuss new rules from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) regarding handballs, now sanctioning any potentially leading to a goal scored, regardless of intentionality, Michel Platini erupted. The former UEFA boss, answering L’Equipe‘s questions, sees it as an additional step in the path started by the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) systems towards an interpretation-less, box-ticking way of refereeing football. A few months after the first ever World Cup to use such assistance, and as a follower of a league (the French Ligue 1) that also has video support, I fully agree with the legendary French number 10: VAR must stop.

VAR goes against the essence of a game in which the referee is more than a robot ticking boxes, more than automatically responding to clear-cut yes/no situations. In that sense, let us leave goal-line technology for now: I am in favour, as there is no room for debate in that respect (the ball is in or is not) and technology helps the referee within a matter of seconds, a crucial point that I shall return to below. Otherwise, interpretation is key. The referee and his human judgement, prone to mistakes, are part of the game. VAR only postpones the problem of interpretation, without solving it. For instance, even after dozens of slow-motion viewings of Perisic’s handball, most people cannot agree about whether or not France should have been awarded a penalty after VAR intervention, a couple of seconds before half-time in the World Cup final against Croatia, back in July.

One might argue that I chose a particular example, helping my point. There are, however, many others: despite hating PSG deeply, I could not help but think that the penalty, given against Kimpembé for a handball in the round of 16 fixture of the Champion’s League against Manchester United after video assistance, was extremely harsh (and most French pundits believe it should not have been awarded). Chiellini’s dive following Morata’s very light “push” in the first leg of Atletico-Juventus, leading to a goal being cancelled by VAR intervention, is another example of a moot decision. In fact, watching French league games every week, I can confirm that moments where the decision taken after VAR is not debated are extremely rare. Some will argue that it is just a matter of time, and that the system will improve as we use it more. However, I believe that the contentious nature of football’s laws of the game makes these moot cases the rule rather than the exception.

The Perisic example illustrates how useless VAR is with most cases of handball in the box: technology certainly does not end debates about referees’ decisions. This was predictable, given the delicate nature of assessing a handball offence: the referee, taking into account elements that are debatable in essence, such as whether the arm makes a movement towards the ball, and whether the distance between the arm and the ball was big enough for the ball to be “expected”, delivers a human judgement (once again, one of these that make football refereeing so special) to decide whether the hand contact was deliberate. VAR does not help to solve controversy on these issues.

VAR is used, of course, to judge whether a penalty should be awarded for offences beyond handball. It does not make matters easier in a lot of cases. Giving a foul is a lot less simplistic than what most fans and even professional players assume (“I played the ball ref”), since playing the ball is just a criterion among others in judging whether or not a challenge is illicit (in other words, there is no rule that says “the ball was played so no foul should be given, and vice-versa”). Whether the use of force was excessive is another one – which is again, moot and varies from referee to referee in given situations. Similarly, mere contact is not enough: in many cases, the referee tells a player who went down to play on since the contact, albeit real, was not deemed enough to make him fall or lose the ball.

There are two counter-arguments to this point. The first is to say that there remain clear-cut cases that are sometimes missed by the referee and should be sanctioned. True, but so rare that they do not warrant the use of VAR given its costs (on which I shall elaborate later). The second is that VAR helps interpretation by slowing the action down and allowing the referee to review it. I see many problems with that. The first is that if the issue is to remain controversial anyway, due to diverging interpretations across referees or football fans, why bother with VAR (bringing us back to the issue of its costs)? Why not have the interpretation be done live? The second is deeper and a lot more problematic. VAR distorts actions and judgements due to slow-motion. Any contact is amplified. Mark Clattenburg, a former top-level referee, now retired, arguing that Kimpembé’s handball should not have been given in the Daily Mail, says slow motion makes things ‘look worse.’

In that regard, Chiellini is probably the first player to ever cheat VAR so blatantly. There is no way Morata prevents the Italian defender from challenging the ball, but reviewing the action time and time again led the referee to take the risk-less option since there is a very mild contact. Controversy avoided. The same applies for handballs: even if they should not be given, or at least, there is a strong case against (Perisic and Kimpembé examples), the easier option for the official is just to stop thinking and give it. The pressure is too big to do otherwise. In that sense, it is, in fact, very debatable whether or not VAR improves justice. More than moving the interpretation away from live action very uselessly, VAR also changes the nature of football refereeing in a non-desirable way.

The case of offside is illustrative about the costs. Very often (aside from cases where the referee has to interpret whether the offside player really affects the play), offside is said to be a clear-cut, yes or no decision. First of all, this relies on accepting that video footages are more accurate at stopping the image at the right time than the linesman’s eyes, which, trust me, is not self-evident (at least in most French league games I watch). But even accepting that technology is an improvement in that regard, for the sake of the argument, does that vindicate the use of VAR? Not in my opinion.

Most blatant offside positions will be spotted by the referees. For closer cases, the offside rule has always been acknowledged to be imprecise and FIFA itself has always included recommendations about the benefit of doubt for assistant referees (which, way before VAR, goes in the way of the attack, the referee being recommended to keep his flag down in case of doubt). Using VAR for a mere matter of centimetres is absolutely ridiculous, given the costs. Football, contrary to other sports using technology, such as tennis or rugby, is not a sequential game: play is extremely continuous and flowing. Waiting for the hawk-eye call is, for tennis fans, not any longer than waiting for Djokovic to bounce the ball 15 times before serving (and another 15 times if the first serve does not go in), or for players to switch ends every two games: it is completely minor.

As for rugby, I acknowledge some waiting times that occasionally seem long, but again, given the number of breaks in the effective time of play (after a try and before its conversion, before scrums, before line-outs for instance), this is a lot less disruptive than in football. Anyone who ever watched a football game where fans celebrate a goal before its cancellation by the referee after 5 minutes of deliberating over 5 centimetres offside will agree that this is horrible. Anyone who watched the second half of extra-time between Roma and Porto in the round of 16 of the Champion’s League, interrupted in both boxes for interminable discussions between the referee and video-assistant, will agree that this is killing the spontaneity of the game.

Football is a sport that magnifies mistakes like no other. For players, a poor touch can end up in a nutmeg, a shin volley can go top-bins, a missed cross can turn into a screamer. Referees make mistakes, like the players, and, as we saw, attempts to make the game mistake-less through technology are flawed. Football makes any fan go through every possible emotion in 90 minutes, and the human aspect of refereeing is part of that. Maybe it is time to accept that referees are part of the game and not robots: their desire to protect themselves is understandable, given the immense pressure managers, players, fans and owners put them under.

Sadly, football seems to be drifting away from what makes it unique as a generator of incredible emotions. Indeed, the only way to make VAR work is to change football laws to reduce the room for interpretation. In fact, the recent change in handball rules follows this logic exactly: the deliberate handball notion has been reduced, with any handballs now being sanctioned in certain cases. It is to be feared that more and more reforms will follow the same reasoning. Football is moving in the dull direction of box-ticking, away from the roots that made it the most popular sport in the world. Human refereeing and its implications – interpretation, disagreements, and, very occasionally, mistakes, should be part of it. My game is a game where the referee is down there, in the middle of the park, being a part of the footballing theatre. Not an umpire comfortably seated on a chair, seemingly protected by a technology designed, but failing to, suppress any controversy.

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