The referee’s role in a soccer match is unique in sports. In his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano describes the ref as “An abominable tyrant who runs his dictatorship without opposition, a pompous executioner who exercises his absolute power with an operatic flourish.” The relationship between the ref and the players is personal and delicate. One person is given total authority over a battle between twenty-two players under the scrutiny of the fans and the media. If the ref abuses his power, the flow of the game could be ruined, but if the refs succumb to the pressure of the players and fans, the game could fall into chaos. There is no other sport where one authority figure has so much control over the attitude and outcome of a game. This unique balance of power and method of law enforcement is necessary due to the nature of the game. Soccer is free flowing and dictated by primarily subjective rules. Unlike most other sports, the boundaries of the playing space and black or white decisions are not what decides games. Because of the unique nature of soccer, video assisted refereeing (VAR) should not be a part of the game.
In football, tennis, basketball, baseball, and most other sports, determining whether the ball is in play or who should have possession is crucial to the outcome of the game. Furthermore, there is often an expiring clock that requires review to see whether a play happened during regulation. In basketball, football, and tennis, these types of calls are largely what video assistance is used for. In tennis, it is used to see if a ball is in or out. In football, it is used to determine whether a player was in or out, whether a pass was complete, whether a player was down, whether a pass was forward or backwards, the placement of the ball, and several other specific judgments. In basketball, it is used to determine possession, to check whether a player was in the lines, to see if a shot was a three pointer or a two, to see if a shot got off before the buzzer, and to check specific fouls in the last two minutes of a game. The confines of the game and specific objective issues like placement and possession of the ball are not what matter in soccer. The only important judgments of this nature are whether the ball crossed the goal line and offsides calls. The game is defined by rules that are up for interpretation- fouls, severity of those fouls, and hand balls.
The purpose of VAR is to overturn “clear errors” involving game changing decisions made by the referee. Reviewable calls are goals and whether there was a violation in the buildup (foul or offsides), penalty decisions, and direct red card decisions. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved the use of VAR but kept its implementation optional. It was introduced in the top German and Italian Leagues and at the 2018 World Cup. During the group stages of the World Cup, 335 calls were checked by VAR and 14 were overturned. There were also 29 penalties awarded in the tournament, 11 more than the previous record. Of calls deemed match changing decisions eligible for VAR review, refs were 95 per cent correct without VAR and 99.3 per cent correct with VAR. So, there is certainly a case for VAR in soccer. In moments where the match could be decided, it increases the accuracy of the refs thus improving the fairness of the game. Regardless of its benefits, VAR has been met with constant criticism. Its lack of consistency has caused confusion and frustration. For clear cut decisions like offsides, it has worked perfectly, but for subjective matters like penalties and hand balls it has been far from ideal. The idea of having three referees watching a game on TV second guess decisions made based on rules meant for interpretation, and then tell the referee who made the subjective call to delay the game to deliberate about his decision, is bound to cause confusion. Although providing a safety net may slightly improve accuracy and decrease the stress on the ref, VAR ruins the delicate balance of power between the referee and his or her environment. They are more likely to get calls wrong knowing a mistake can be covered up. Goal line technology and VAR for offsides calls have a place in soccer, but VAR for subjective calls takes away from the power of the ref and alters the structure of the game that has been in place for a century.