VAR: Is Football Better With Or Without It?

In Watford’s recent draw against Bournemouth, the main talking points post-match surrounded center-back Lloyd Kelly. In the match’s opening minutes, he put in a challenge on Ismaïla Sarr which was objectively reckless and cynical, and was nothing short of a textbook red card. Referee Tim Robinson reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow one. 

Later on in the match, Kelly took down Sarr once more, this time on a counter attack. A second yellow for Kelly, who was fortunate to still be on the pitch, momentarily seemed inevitable, until the referee controversially decided there was no foul play. Watford took the lead early on in the match, but were denied all three points as Cherries’ center-half Chris Mepham scored the late equalizer. Who assisted him? Lloyd Kelly.

When Watford played Tottenham in the October of 2019, there was a very similar storyline of controversy and disgust at refereeing decisions, but with a notable difference. In the 6th minute of play, Abdoulaye Doucouré gave Watford a surprise early lead. The Hornets looked surprisingly strong for the rest of the match, and were on track to get their first win of the season, until the ball found its way into the back of the net in the 86th minute.

As Dele Alli wheeled away in half-hearted celebration, as Spurs wanted to go on and push for a winner, Watford players protested for a potential handball in the lead-up to the goal. The Video Assistant Referee took a look at the incident, and despite the ball clearly hitting Alli’s arm, which was in an “unnatural” position, the goal was awarded. Well, the referee on the pitch said the goal stood, the screen in the stadium said, “no goal,” though the on-the-pitch official’s word was what was listened to. There was also an incident in the match where Gerard Deulofeu was taken down and a penalty for Watford seemed as clear as day, but VAR saw nothing wrong with the challenge.

In both matches, it seemed unfortunate for Watford to not walk away with all three points, and a lot of fans have put the blame directly on the officials for this. The presence of VAR did not protect against such officiating misjudgments. Whether or not Watford would have won had these decisions gone their way is another story. Nevertheless, both of these incidents pose the question: should VAR be implemented in all leagues, or should it be consigned to the dustbin of the game’s history?

The Cons:

The most blatant downside to VAR is that it feels unnatural. The Football League was founded in 1888. For generations upon generations, through multiple World Wars, the rise and fall of empires, the invention of the car, the revolution of modern technology as we know it today, and more, one thing had stayed the same until very recently: the referee’s initial verdict is the final, and only, verdict. What is decided on the pitch cannot be overturned. That’s how things were for well over a century, so any veering from that normality feels odd. 

The direct impact of VAR on a match is the fact that a goal can be scored, the fans wait for three minutes, and then suddenly learn that the goal is disallowed. Even for fans watching at home, the game seems to have an unruly pause to it. One way in which football triumphs over sports such as basketball is the way in which the only full screen advertisements occur pre-match, during halftime, and post-match. The 90 minutes plus stoppage time is otherwise uninterrupted. VAR has undeniably interrupted the flow of matches for both the players and supporters.

Beyond the logistical and traditional downfalls of VAR, there is, more controversially in terms of a match-to-match basis, a seeming inability to utilize VAR correctly. The purpose of VAR is to see if the match official has made a “clear and obvious error.” Taking three minutes to review whether someone’s armpit was offside in the buildup to a goal is not checking whether or not a “clear and obvious error” was made. If the referee made a glaring mistake, it would not take so long to review. 

The way in which “clear and obvious errors” are not the only thing reviewed introduces a new type of controversy. Potentially, but understandably, wrong decisions by the referee are also meticulously analyzed, If VAR takes an extensive look at a call (or non-call), the expectation is that there will be zero error when it comes to the final determination. If VAR is meant to overturn wrong decisions or reaffirm controversial, but correct, ones, and it takes so much time to reach a conclusion, then there should be no post-match debates. The second chance the officials get via VAR means the final ruling, in theory, should always be correct.

The reality is that VAR is far from correct on too many occasions. Bad refereeing decisions, which sometimes are still confirmed after VAR intervention, only become more calamitous. There have been a handful of occasions in the Premier League where VAR will make a decision in the first half of the match, but then the officials at Stockley Park will later admit that the wrong verdict was reached. If VAR isn’t perfect, then why have it at all? VAR sacrifices the imperfect officiating traditions of old for an equally, or arguably more, flawed modern practice.

The Video Assistant Referee is run by another official, so yes, there will still occasionally be human error. That still does not take away from the extent with which controversy becomes magnified. From the perspective of a fan, when a referee without VAR misses a call that ultimately costs a team points, there is a feeling of being hard done by. But, when the officials make a costly mistake following multiple looks, there is a sentiment of willful unfairness.

Controversy without VAR is understandable. Controversy with VAR is contradictory to VAR’s purpose.

The Pros:

There is undeniably plenty wrong with VAR. That is not to say, however, that it does not have some upsides. 

The concept of VAR is fantastic, in the sense that officials should be able to make the correct decision virtually every time because they will have multiple opportunities to review incidents. Referees are far from perfect and understandably so, so giving them a second chance is reasonable. Besides, who doesn’t want the right call to carry the day?

As detestable as VAR may be when it results in an unpopular verdict, the truth is the chance of there being an officiating error is objectively lowered. If the official brandishes a yellow card since a challenge looks a bit excessive but nothing more, and then upon VAR review, it is shown the player’s studs were up, then the official is able to correctly show a red card. Likewise, when players dive, it is easier for the match officials to make the right call since they have more on which to base their final decision than simply a fleeting glance and players’ inevitable protests.

When there is a better chance that the official makes the correct calls, there is a better chance the team that deserves to win on the night does. The best team on the pitch, whether it be through possession, defensive soundness, tactics, or anything else, deserves to get their points. Bad officiating too frequently robs teams of what they deserve from a match, and VAR decreases this occurrence.

As for the players, VAR protects them. It allows them to focus more on football. Without VAR, a player whining about getting hit in the head despite being five yards away from the closest person on the pitch can result in an opposing player getting into hot water. With VAR, the players know they can focus more on their football and less on the antics of their surrounding competition. When the players know they can play without being occupied by the notion of being unjustly sent off, then the overall level of matches improves. 

As of now, VAR is far from perfect. Having said that, the concept of getting all the calls right, even if it requires a second look from the officials, is undoubtedly a positive. But such perfection is still ways away from being the reality, a reality that might not even be possible to reach.

Conclusion:

One immediate, feasible improvement that needs to be made is quickening video reviews. To have an official out of the stadium, away from the intensity of the match, speaking into the ear of the on-the-pitch referee, is more unnatural, and takes longer, than if the referee himself were to quickly take a look on the pitch-side monitor. 

VAR is far from perfect in its current form. The way in which the rule of “clear and obvious error” seems to lack a “clear and obvious” definition epitomizes the current state of VAR. But with improvements, there is no denying VAR has the prospect of being for the better. It just depends on whether or not that near perfection is actually attainable and worth pursuing, or if VAR will survive long enough to see that possibility become a reality. 

As of now, teams like Watford which play in a league without VAR will not insist upon its immediate introduction. But, if it is substantially refined to meet its true intended purpose, then perhaps VAR is better for football after all. 

The bottom line is that VAR needs improvement, but if its current drawbacks are rectified, all of football can benefit. The beautiful game will be purer when each and every match is more about the football and less about the antics. 

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