Since its conception in various world football leagues in the early 2010s, VAR, or Video Assistant Referees, has become polarizing nuance to the longstanding game of football. For over a century, on-field referees have controlled the pace and fluidity of football games with calls made instantaneously against in-game rule infractions. After persistent lobbying from federations such as the Royal Netherlands Football Association and the Football Federation Australia and trials in a handful of major competitions, VAR supporters received a monumental bid of confidence from the global football community with VAR being written into the Laws of the Game by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
Through a handful of recent conversations, its become apparent that fans are very passionate about VAR, whether they firmly believe in it or they despise its existence. This passion seems to emanate from contradicting desires for fair refereeing and for natural game fluidity. Each side cites real-game situations and develops specific visions for the future of the game in creating their stances.
Some fans feel as though those extra couple minutes spent ensuring that a correct call is made are fully justified and necessary for the modern game. They argue that the time lost will simply be added to the game’s penalty time and with all things considered, both the players and the fans will be most content with more accurate assessments of crucial plays. To them, football is an evolving game, and the technology surrounding the game should also be evolving. VAR is the next step in that evolution towards a better football.
Other fans cringe at the stop in gameplay. They berate the leagues that have put VAR into play such as the Bundesliga and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Champions League. They can’t stand that a referee, who may be hundreds of miles away, has the jurisdiction to make a controversial handball call when the on-field referee chose not to call it. They certainly don’t believe PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe committed a handball violation against Manchester United in the decisive Champions League Round of 16 match… and even if he did, they don’t want it called! To them, the right call is the initial call made on the pitch. That’s how football has always been and that’s the way that it always should be. A beautiful game that is as beautiful for its human greatness as it is for its human flaws.
The VAR argument is one that should have a place in the game for a long time – we see parallel situations spawning in other major sports leagues such as the NBA, which has also adopted new review policies to help ensure fair refereeing. I think the NFL could be a useful example of a league that has partially implemented video-review in the form of coach challenges. The challenge rule allows referees to review controversial and consequential plays but also turns the decision to review into a privilege for teams. This leaves coaches with the freedom to choose when they’d like to double-check the validity of an on-field call but also restricts the number of decisions that can be reviewed. The NFL also allows for a VAR-like wrinkle in the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters, where on-field officials are notified if a decision warrants video-review. This mixed system should be analyzed for applicability by a global football community looking to improve on a quintessential development to their beautiful game.
Football is not just a game of 22 players kicking an inflated pig’s bladder around a field, it is about those 22 players being cheered on by thousands of fans.
The problem with VAR is that it interrupts the flow of the game and fans have an uncomfortable nagging feeling following them around that the action will be stopped for some infringement that happened five, ten, twelve or twenty minutes ago, regardless of what is happening on the pitch at that moment.
VAR’s other rmain problem despite all its fancy technology is that decisions are still made by humans and their personal viewpoints upon what occurred during that infringement.
The biggest disappointment is that fans are left with a feeling that they have no idea what has happened during the game
New rules and procedures arising in soccer federations are always controversial. Every new addition is met with incredulity and anticipation, a mixed bag of feelings resulting in a split in the fan base. The feelings towards the changes are subject to (often weekly) radical swings: whereas it may have costed your team 3 points the previous week , it may grant your team 3 points this week. The chief problem with VAR is that even though is completely accurate in some respects, such as the offside rule, it leaves many degrees of freedom in any other call. The referee can still botch a call upon review, but now he can take more time.
I wonder what is next. I could foresee a future in which the rulings are not made by a single main referee; perhaps a panel of referees that vote on which way it should go. The future of refereeing is hard to predict and I am not so sure that fans are completely on board with the idea of taking the unpredictability out of the game if the direction is towards more advanced reviewing systems. Let’s see where it goes.