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VAR is good in theory, but in practice it’s a disaster

VAR is good in theory, but in practice it’s a disaster

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes

VAR is good in theory

VAR is here to save the day! Right? RIGHT!? Baseball has added replay and can successfully avoid incorrectly calling someone safe on what would be the last out of a perfect game. Basketball apparently still can’t avoid having trouble figuring out out-of-bounds possession. Hockey refs really get into their goal confirming calls. And the NFL still has no idea what a catch is. Needless to say, it has some mixed results.

That said, VAR (Video Assistant Referee) is here to be the savior of soccer. Gone are the days when a striker can score an offside goal. As are the days of a central defender getting away with a nasty play in the box that should have resulted in a penalty. A better look can be taken to determine what color card a player will see. All this, and it will be only mildly disruptive.

I’m just kidding. It’s a mess. After thinking about it for a while, I’ve come up with what the VAR tagline should be…

In all seriousness, replay has come into the greatest game with horribly mixed results.

A Big Joke

VAR hasn’t hit widespread usage yet, and it’s already ruining the game. At some point FIFA has to say “eh, screw it, let’s kill it”. Otherwise it will kill all excitement in the game. Sure, it has been used to some success in leagues like the Bundesliga and MLS and competitions such as the FA Cup, but it has proven calamitous in many scenarios as well. My biggest question is did FIFA even try to train referees before forcing VAR usage upon them? It sure as heck doesn’t seem that way. With the recent announcement that it will be adopted in the World Cup, I have serious concerns about the effect it will have on an international stage.

For starters, once the ref outlines that invisible box with his fingers, players and fans alike have no idea what’s going on. I’ve seen refs stand there with their finger to their earpiece, listening to the assistant referee in the booth. Some refs run over to a screen on the sideline a la the NFL. I’ve also seen some poor soul whose job it is to run a tablet out to the referee. Where’s the consistency? And where’s the communication? Once one of those three things happen we’re in the dark.

I can’t stand the guy, but Jamie Vardy put it pretty succinctly (after claiming he had no idea what VAR stands for, and making a Vodka And Redbull joke).

You want examples? I’ve got examples.

There are plenty to choose from, but I’ll hone in on a select few.

The Zlatan Effect

Let’s start with the most recent case. Zlatan Ibrahimović. Zlatan made his MLS debut this past weekend in El Tráfico, first LA Derby between the Galaxy and LAFC. I’m not even kidding. That’s what pundits are calling it. It’s both hilarious and ridiculous, but I digress. Start at 1:06 in this video, or start from the beginning if you want to see Zlatan’s wonder strike first.

There’s a lot of talk about whether or not he was offside for the second goal. I’m not sure why there was debate. He was offside. Yet MLS Referee Mark Geiger didn’t review it. It’s almost as if MLS dreamed up this perfect debut for Zlatan, and didn’t care that he was perched just ahead of the defenders. They wanted the storybook beginning for him. When the ball was initially played out wide you can see Zlatan check his run a bit, but he never got himself back onside before service came in and he headed it home. If you don’t think the angle in the video is enough, take a look for yourself. If Geiger used VAR, this game would have ended in a draw.

Then, of course, the Twittersphere blew up.

The beginning of the end for England

Jamie Vardy’s comments stemmed from a controversial penalty given to Italy in the 87th minute of their friendly during last week’s international break. Federico Chiesa ran into a crowd of English defenders, all of whom closed in on him. James Tarkowski appeared to have clipped Chiesa, who went down in a heap. At first glance I can see it being called as a penalty, however there’s no clear moment when Tarkowski or any other English defender takes him down. In fact, when you take a look at the play closely, Chiesa is already on his way down before any contact is made. That’s not a clear and obvious mistake to me, so I don’t know how German referee Deniz Aytekin reverses that call.

But hey, what do I know? You be the judge. All I know is this doesn’t bode well for an England team who is looking to exorcise some demons on the world stage this summer.

The FA Cup Disaster

Perhaps one of the most ridiculous displays of VAR to date was during Tottenham Hotspur’s 6-1 defeat of Rochdale on February 28th in the FA Cup. I swear I’m not being a homer here. Spurs won. However this game was bonkers. VAR was used ten times in the game, which resulted in eight minutes added to the end of the first half. TEN times!? EIGHT minutes!? BONKERS, I SAY! Five of those uses came within a nine minute span in the first half. BBC Sport has a brilliant outline of the sequence of events, so let’s let them walk us through those five.

From BBC

22: Spurs winger Lucas Moura breaks into the box, dribbles past a couple of defenders and goes down under apparent contact from McGahey. It goes to review for a minute before it is decided there was minimal contact and no penalty is awarded.

23: Son’s right-footed strike gives Tottenham the lead but there is yet another delay while VAR checks there is no reason to disallow the goal. The original decision stands.

25: Kieran Trippier is fouled by Rochdale’s Matt Done and a free-kick is awarded. There is a delay before VAR decides the offence continued into the penalty area.

29: Son scores the penalty for Spurs but Tierney blows his whistle immediately and addresses VAR. Son is shown a yellow card and is deemed to have ‘feinted’ in the run-up to his spot-kick. The goal is overturned and a free-kick is awarded to Rochdale.

31: Rochdale’s Stephen Humphrys equalises after he is played in by Andrew Cannon but there is another short delay while VAR checks there is no reason to disallow the goal.

In addition to these times, it was used to verify three goals successfully, take a way a goal due to an offensive foul, and confirm that an Erik Lamela yellow card should not be upgraded to red. But the real question on my mind…

Who is making the calls?

Due to the time it’s taking to handle the review itself, and the scattered implementation across leagues and competitions, confusion is abound. If the referee doesn’t walk to a video screen is he even making that call? I have no problem with the video assistant getting in the ref’s ear and saying “You awarded a penalty there, but it was obvious that Dele Alli dove in the box and wasn’t touched”. That should take 10 seconds, maybe 20 if the video assistant goes into some details. But that’s it. However I don’t think it’s the assistant making the call. I don’t think the referee knows the protocol and is making the call on the spot instead of checking the video himself.

Some decisions are taking multiple minutes, and there’s no explanation as to what exactly they are looking at. There needs to be consistency with implementation, particularly now that it’s going to be used on the world stage in Russia this summer. How can they get it right? Gather all referees chosen for the World Cup and put them through a boot camp. Make sure all are on the same page, and the process is to be the same no matter who the ref is, whether or not they’ve used it before.

Play. Communicate. Repeat.

There will always be human error in the game. Part of the beauty of it is that error. That the game is fast paced and direct and there’s one person running through the midfield who doesn’t play for either team. That person will make mistakes, and that’s okay. However that person also needs to communicate. Let the fans and players know what’s happening. Explain the decision.

Do everything possible to make the headlines of the 2018 World Cup revolve around Iceland’s Cinderella run, Russia’s group stage exit despite playing host, or Germany’s continued dominance. Don’t let VAR have an adverse effect. I’m looking at you, FIFA. Do the right thing.

Kevin is an actor, director, playwright, and musician who works in tech. He is die hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.

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