Video review has made its way to the 2018 World Cup and brought with it the same sort of controversy we’ve seen in league play. The system is still only used for four key events: goals, penalty kicks, red cards and mistaken identity.
We often hear the defining criteria of “clear and obvious error” used to describe the instances where VAR is even allowed to be applied. From there, the referee is allowed three possible options:
- Change the call based on video evidence
- Review the video on the sideline
- Keep the original call
We’ve had debates over whether VAR impacts games, and on how it might affect the pace of play.
Instead, let’s look at that third option for the referee and think about whether the referee is part of the game itself. By game, I mean both the sport of soccer as a whole as well as the individual match.
When VAR was first discussed, there was a debate between giving power to the video booth and leaving power with the center official. We’ve ended up with a compromise that, to me at least, is the worst of both worlds. The key issues are the requirement of a “clear and obvious error” and the option for the referee to keep the original call.
The primary benefit of video replay is that it allows difficult, too-close-to-call decisions to be made easily and relatively quickly. In baseball and rugby, events that happen far too quickly for humans to accurately make decisions can be made in under a minute with the advantage of slow-motion playback. Yes, it does require a stoppage in play, but those happen anytime there’s a contested situation already. And instead of watching a player and/or coach squabble with an official, we can turn to tangible proof, figure out the correct decision and apply it. Problem solved.
Requiring VAR to be used in only those “clear and obvious error” situations means that center officials still control the game. But should this be the case? I honestly don’t know. This keeps a human element in the form of the four on-field officials which interfere with the outcome of a game. Decisions on yellow cards or free kicks are made with some amount of subjectivity. We, as spectators, have come to accept this as perfectly normal. But is it really normal?
Onto the focal point of this rant: the VAR procedure.
When a situation worthy of video review occurs — one of those “clear and obvious errors” — either the referee requests a review or the video booth decides it’s worth investigating anyway. This is all fine to me. If they don’t find anything on the replay, that’s it, they don’t need to signal the referee, and play continues. Still perfectly reasonable. But if there is an error, we get to those three possible decisions listed earlier up. Now, at this point, we know there must have been a “clear and obvious error” by the crew on the field in order to trigger this process, meaning that one of the on-field crew members has either gotten something wrong or missed something. Why, then, is there an option for the referee to overrule the decision from the video booth? They have access to all the footage and camera angles, so they have the best possible chance of making the correct decision, and they’re only investigating because there was an incorrect call already made.
Giving the referee that option essentially nullifies the entire purpose of video assistance. In fact, I don’t think they have the procedures right at all. To me, I would prefer that either the video booth gets to override the call on the field and the ensuing decision is automatically revealed in the stadium like tennis’ Hawk-Eye system, or the video booth makes the final call and passes it along to the ref, who merely relays it. One of those two should be the official policy. It shouldn’t be the referee’s decision. Currently, VAR technically only determines when a review is needed, and it’s wholly in the head referee’s hands from there.
The idea behind VAR was a fairer #WorldCup and fewer errors. 95% of the match-changing decisions taken by the referees in the Group Stage were correct.
— The IFAB (@TheIFAB) July 4, 2018
But again, this is my opinion and I honestly don’t know if it’s the right one. I keep thinking about this issue, and I need more data.
Finally, a small gripe comparatively, but one I think might actually be the most irritating. The video assistant referee is only allowed to use slow-motion playback for contact offenses — handballs, tackles and the like. Why can’t they use slow-motion playback for everything?
I’ll get to the point.
To me, the purpose of a team sport is to see how two teams of players do against each other. It should be down to their actions on the field and the decisions of their coach. The referee’s opinion shouldn’t be part of the sport itself. It’s not interfering with the game to me, it’s preserving it. It’s ensuring that the rule book is correctly and fairly enforced every single time.
I imagine that just about everyone reading this has some negative opinion of a particular referee. We all know a ref who made some ridiculous call or completely missed a penalty kick or something. This is the exact problem I’d like to see VAR address. Instead, it’s basically rendered useless by the FIFA/IFAB implementation.
Imagine the following scenario:
Team A is hosting Team B in a stadium with goal-line technology. Team A takes a shot on goal that slips through the ‘keeper’s hands, and a Team B defender attempts to clear the ball off the line. According to the goal-line technology, the ball fully crossed the goal line and the referee gets the signal to award a goal. But instead, the center referee decides that, despite what his technology tells him, the ball really was cleared off the line and it’s not a goal.
This is how VAR looks to me. I just don’t know if I’m right.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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