FIFA Women's World Cup (2019)Liondartois

Over the last three years, the world of football has been dominated by tumultuous debate over the role of VAR in the beautiful game; in fact, these days, it has become impossible to speak to anyone about football without it coming up. But that begs the question: what makes football so special? Why are we all so comfortable with the use of video assistance in all our other sports? What’s the difference when it comes to football? Tennis, rugby, cricket and American football viewers are all more than happy with their respective technological assistants (this was always part of the argument for the introduction of VAR in the first place). If they can do it, why can’t we? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. In 2018, Varsity published its own discussion of the issue, which was representative of the two main camps. However, three years on, the lines have been blurred. It would be hard to find anyone who can happily ignore the benefits it brings, and harder still to find someone who can look past its pitfalls. So, let’s see why we still are arguing about VAR and, more importantly, answer the question, will we ever stop?

The first issue that is often brought up by the anti-VAR luddites is that of subjectivity (And they’ve got a point). The reason we’re so happy with the Hawk-Eye systems of tennis and cricket is because they scientifically represent, as accurately as possible, whether the ball would have been in or out, or hit the bails or not. The system uses six or seven high-end cameras positioned around the stadium to track the trajectory of the ball within a margin of error of 3.6mm. The same system has been used in football’s Goal-Line Technology since 2013 and, with the exception of the bizarre turn of events in June’s fixture between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, has been, frankly, an overwhelming success. The point is, however, that these are objective decisions, scientifically calculated to the highest possible degree of accuracy. Comparatively, VAR is an opportunity for referees to rewind and watch a series of events which they must then judge themselves. In this way at least, VAR isn’t really a technological advancement. It changes almost nothing about the very human (and thus highly fallible) decision making process of a referee. Yet, the same can be said of Rugby’s Television Match Official and the NFL’s Instant Replay system, and these are far less contentious in today’s games.

“In this way at least, VAR isn’t really a technological advancement. It changes almost nothing about the very human (and thus highly fallible) decision making process of a referee.”

So, what’s the difference? Clearly, it’s not much use to compare the science of tennis and cricket to the subjectivity of the three siblings of the ‘football’ family. But between the three, association football has provided the biggest uproar. That’s not to say that rugby and American football haven’t had their own hurdles in their relationships with technology. In fact, the NFL has been developing their Instant Replay system since 1978, when the very first trials were carried out, and it wasn’t until 1986 that the league voted to impose the system officially, but only on a yearly basis. After six years of frustratingly inefficient usage (10% of the overturned calls in the 1991 season were retrospectively determined to have been incorrect), the league abandoned it for another seven years. It was only in 1998 that the league re-adopted it, and only permanently as of 2007. Rugby has also had a long and complicated relationship with the TMO. Its first trials began in 1999 and has encountered a number of famous controversies. However, these love-hate relationships have been cultivated over a number of decades and, although they have encountered deeply divisive calls, they did so far less frequently than the Premier League, where they seem to be a weekly occurrence. So, is it simply a case of teething problems in the world of football? Partly. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture.

Rugby, American football and association football are all very different games. European football fans will always pride themselves on the fluidity and high tempo of their beloved sport and, more often than not, look down on the stop-start, over-complicated nature of rugby and American football. However, it is precisely for this reason that Instant Replay works so well in the NFL. The dead time already exists to go back and analyse the events that took place, making use of the incredibly descriptive rule book that describes the number of steps required to complete a catch; the position of a quarterback’s hand to distinguish between an incomplete pass and a fumble; and the required distance from the line of scrimmage to distinguish a legal block from a pass interference offence. You probably had to read that sentence three times over for it to make any sense. But that’s the point. For technology to function efficiently in the jurisdiction of sport, a precise, constitutional rule book is required. That way, it is possible to remove the subjectivity from the decision-making of referees. In rugby, while forward pass calls might be one of the hardest to make, decisions on grounding and touch are more objective, if still difficult to discern in situations of a very small margin (see the 2007 World Cup Final). Football, however, is a different question altogether. Despite the efforts of IFAB to match the specificity of the NFL’s rules, football remains a highly subjective sport. What counts as ‘excessive force’? Which part of your body can be called offside? Where does the arm start and finish? IFAB’s attempts to answer these have been insufficient. Apparently, “any part of the head, body and feet”, excluding “the hands and arms of all players” can be considered to be offside and, when deciding a handball offence, “the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit”. The reason that these changes have been inefficient is that the technology is simply not advanced enough to impose them. The lines drawn by VAR look a good six inches thick and the frame-rate of the VAR camera is too slow to accurately specify the moment when the ball is passed.

“So where does that leave us? Will football ever get it right? And will we ever stop arguing about bloody VAR? History says: no.”

So where does that leave us? Will football ever get it right? And will we ever stop arguing about bloody VAR? History says: no. After more than four decades of testing, development and technological advancement, the NFL themselves have said that they “may never find the perfect system”. Rugby continues to see contentious decisions that will never be easily made. Football, the most subjective of them all, is just at the very start of this journey. That’s not to say that this journey should not be made at all: football without VAR is a lawless and unpredictable landscape. Tournaments and clubs that do not have yet have access to the technology make up the Wild West of the footballing world. For decades, we watched the most unjust moments play out on our television screens and begged the FIFA gods to let the referees see what we see. And that’s what we got. All of a sudden, however, we’re throwing our toys out the pram and telling FIFA, IFAB, PGMOL, whoever will listen, that they’ve gotten it all wrong.

Clearly, we all need to rethink what VAR means to us. Maybe we were misinformed: it was sold as the divine intervention required to save football from itself. But now we need to see it for what it really is, and the key is in the name: it’s an assistant, nothing more, nothing less. It helps the referee to make better, but not perfect, decisions. It is a filter to remove the most extreme human errors that are to be expected from a referee. So, if we expect errors from a referee in real time, why don’t we expect errors during a replay? Yes, there should be far fewer, but there will always be some. There will always be something we haven’t thought of and is therefore absent from the rule book. Thus, for a good period of time, VAR will only serve to shed light on the pitfalls and omissions of the laws of football and all the while, we will keep arguing about it. Ultimately, we’re stuck in a search for compromise. VAR can’t ever go away, nor can it ever be perfect. But it certainly can be better, and that’s what we must hope to see over the next few years. Until then, we must settle in for the bumpy journey that VAR will inevitably take. In fact, we must keep arguing about it, as the Americans did with their Instant Replay, since this is the only way it will ever reach a stage where it is sufficiently accepted.