With the advent of the National Football League passing new rules that allow for video replay in crucial pass interference plays, I want to again bring back a discussion that the English discussion section had regarding soccer’s Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR). During class, I was shocked at the general skepticism towards VAR. Majority of the class disliked its use. I, however, seemed to be in the substantial minority of people who thought that VAR was a clear improvement to the game. In order to differentiate this post from others, I will focus on the history of VAR before giving my passionate defense. If anyone is interested in the logical arguments for and against VAR, they can view a very interesting discussion led by classmate Jared Curdover here.
To give some background on VAR, it was first conceived during the Netherland’s Referee 2.0 project in the early 2010s with mock trials run in their top league, the Eredivisie, in the 2012-2013 season. After some early success, the Royal Netherlands Football Association petitioned the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to change its rules allowing video replay during games. However, former president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, generally viewed VAR unfavorably, and therefore, it gained little traction until his forceful removal following the 2015 corruption scandal.
Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, held almost the opposite view of his predecessor in terms of VAR and thus approved trial runs of VAR in 2016. The general argument for implementation was articulated clearly by IFAB secretary, Lukas Brud, when he remarked, “With all the 4G and Wi-Fi in stadia today…we knew we had to protect referees from making mistakes that everyone can see immediately.” The idea of protecting referees and their decisions was the primary driving factor for increased implementation of VAR. Although referees, on average, make the correct call an astoundingly high 95% of the time, the system was to protect the referees against those 5% of calls that could easily be viewed by fans.
Some of the first trials of VAR were run in the United States in 2016 with reserve sides. Applying this new technology to smaller games (and leagues) was a common trend until the A-League in Australia became the first professional top-flight league to introduce VAR into league matches in April of 2017. This adoption led the United States (not surprisingly given their willingness to use video replay in other sports) to be the next early adopter of VAR with full time use coming after the MLS all-star game in August 2017. Other top leagues in Europe soon followed suit with both Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A adopting VAR for their 2017-2018 season. La Liga and Ligue 1 then became the next major leagues to adopt VAR, with VAR being approved for the 2018-2019 season. Currently this leaves the English Premier league as the only major domestic league in Europe not using VAR. However, this will soon change after Premier League clubs agreed in principle on November 15th, 2018 to introduce VAR in 2019 after a particularly egregious offsides call on Southampton’s Charlie Austin.
In terms of international matches, VAR was first introduced in an international friendly between France and Italy in June of 2016. Its first use during a “professional” competition occurred in 2017 during a Confederations Cup match. After being effectively rolled out in friendly matches and smaller competitions, FIFA approved the use of VAR in the 2018 World Cup and was credited with helping this past World Cup be one of the “cleanest” in recent history with only four players being sent off during the entire tournament. The relative success of VAR during the 2018 World Cup was a contributing factor to its implementation in the 2018-2019 Champions League where it was introduced in the knockout stages (although not used in the group stages). Fans have already seen the contentious sides of the VAR debate in the opening games of the knockout stage. Most notably was VAR’s decision to award Manchester United a penalty after PSG defender, Presnel Kimpembe was deemed to have had his hand in an “unnatural” position after he deflected Diego Dalot’s speculative effort in the closing stages of the Champions League Round of 16.
With VAR’s rapid roll out into all major domestic and international leagues, it is unsurprising that it has had growing pains. It occasionally takes too long. It might wander into making calls that aren’t clearly black or white. The calls that are replayed aren’t particularly transparent. Fans are often times disconnected from the in-game experience as calls are reversed with little explanation. However, the spirit of VAR is spot on. It is designed so that the better team wins. Period. As we are finding out with March Madness this year, anything can still happen. Often times, I feel that people conflate VAR with the belief that cinderella stories now can’t happen. Upsets can still happen. They will happen. Video replay is team, player, and league agnostic. The underdog is just as likely to benefit from video replay as the overwhelming favorite.
Football purists often lament the time wasted during video replay. However, a statistical analysis of VAR found that stoppage time is up only 19 seconds on average. This increase is almost as negligible as players feigning injury, running to the corner flag, or in some extreme cases, the ball boys refusing to give the ball over to the opposing team in a timely manner. Furthermore, the time it takes to review plays is improving. A review of video replay in soccer found that the typical VAR review has decreased from 82 seconds since the start of its implementation to now just 40 seconds. These 40 seconds are hardly the game slowing glacier that many football purists propose. Would one rather watch a match for an additional 40 seconds (or 59 including stoppage time) and watch the deserving team walk off in victory, or instead have the extra 59 seconds and leave the match knowing that the game was a fluke? The answer is obvious.
There are people’s livelihood at stake. Managers could potentially be fired over a fateful decision by a referee. There are millions of dollars at stakes for teams trying to qualify for the Champions League. The difference between making a team’s financial fair play obligations and not often rides are this qualification. And these Champions League spots are often highly contentious and competitive. Should they really be denied qualification over one atrocious call by a referee? Referees are human, and therefore make mistakes. Should those mistakes seriously jeopardize the livelihood of the game’s participants?
Football purists will additionally claim that bad refereeing is a component of the “luck” factor that keeps fans on the edge of their seat’s week in and week out. I mean, no one would be talking about Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal if it was deemed a blatant handball by the virtual assistant. However, although these goals have gained almost legendary folktale status, the game, I would argue, would still be considerably improved if these flagrant violations were caught. And my argument really comes down to equity. Yes, this one missed call will forever be remembered fondly by Argentinian fans. But what about the fans for England that were sent home that day thoroughly outraged and disillusioned? Was it equitable for England to be eliminated by a flagrant miscall? Some VAR opponents argue that calls, on net, are missed evenly among sides, and therefore although England was penalized at this moment, they will surely be compensated later by a call that goes in their favor. However, if one thinks about this argument, they realize that these miscalls really aren’t distributed equally. It is true that England will likely be awarded by a miscall later in another tournament. But will that miscall be in a game of the same heightened importance as a World Cup quarterfinal match? Because there are statistically so many fewer important matches, it makes miscalls during these important matches particularly unfair and unlikely to be evenly distributed among teams.
Additionally, VAR helps keep referees accountable. It is a well-documented empirical fact that home teams receive preferential treatment from referees. This is largely due to implicit-biases that referees face in stadiums filled with thousands of like-minded individuals. Again, these implicit biases mean that miscalls are likely to not be evenly distributed among the two different teams. However, VAR at least holds referees accountable for these implicit-biases during major calls that could affect the outcomes of games. Therefore, VAR is a built-in “check” on the power of referees and their impartial play-calling that they themselves might not be privy to.
Furthermore, most referees generally favor the VAR system solely because it is a tool that enables them to do their job better. Imagine being a writer and being forced to use a typewriter when access to a computer is possible and easy. 99% of writers would want to use the technology that makes their lives easier. Similarly, VAR is a tool that makes referees’ jobs easier. For example, former Premier League referee, Howard Webb, has remarked that VAR helps him eliminate nagging feelings of doubt about a particularly crucial play that then carries over to later critical decisions. He has found VAR to be a particularly freeing experience. It both makes his job easier and allows him to do a better job. And this anecdotal evidence seems to be supported by empirical findings. A statistical analysis of VAR found that when VAR is used, the percentage of correct calls improves from 95% to a near perfect 99.3%. As fans, is this not what we want? Additionally, these feelings are not just expressed by Howard Webb. Another Premier League referee, Mark Clattenburg, has publicly commented that he often felt anguish and despair after games knowing that he might have made crucial mistakes on plays where he didn’t have great vantage points. VAR not only frees referees of these feelings, but also allows referees to further focus on the game knowing that one decision they make is not going to adversely affect the outcome of an entire game.
Finally, the importance of VAR is highlighted by the relative importance of a scoring opportunity in soccer versus almost any other major professional sport. For example, it is common for soccer games to end 1-0. Therefore, because one goal can determine whether a team wins or loses a match, the goal carries immense importance. This is contrasted with a sport like basketball for example, where it is common for combined scores to regularly exceed 200 points. Therefore, one questionable basketball bucket might only be worth 2/200th or .01 percent of the total scoring of a game where one goal could be equal to 100% of the total scoring. Because of this magnification, the importance of getting these goals right is of upmost importance. It is the difference between winning and losing. Why video replay is allowed and supported in leagues such as the NBA where a scoring opportunity has such a small marginal benefit while video replay (and VAR as an extension) is not supported in soccer where it will potentially have the largest marginal benefit of any professional sports league is ludicrous.
As Jared mentioned, VAR is definitely here to stay. However, I still don’t totally understand the general antipathy towards it. It has had its growing pains and will continue to have its wrinkles. But, it improves outcomes without significantly lengthening matches. This tradeoff almost seems like a no-brainer. It is time that soccer, a sport where one decision can, and often will be, the difference between success and failure, to evolve just like almost every other professional sports league has before it.
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