Video Assisted Referees, better known as the VAR system, entered into use in the football world with the 2018 World Cup, winning many accolades. However, the tide turned pretty quickly against the system, soon enough emerging as one of the biggest controversies in football. FIFA announced that the system had a 99.3% success rate during the World Cup and public opinion was pretty much willing to go along with this claim. Nevertheless, since national leagues have started to implement the system, especially, VAR has suddenly become one of the most hotly-debated new aspects of the sport. The reason for this varies greatly from country to country, thus making it hard to point to a certain reason for this unexpected change. There are some genuine complaints about the technical details accompanied with VAR being scapegoated by a number of shrewd commentators, especially in Turkey. I would argue we stick with VAR, however, as it is does more good than harm overall, though amendments are needed.
One statistic that points to the efficiency of VAR came from the Spanish Referee Committee at the start of the year. The committee reported that “Penalties were awarded in 56 plays. Twenty-six errors were made, 19 of which were corrected by VAR. So the error margin has been reduced to 4.79% thanks to VAR." This also strengthens the argument that VAR has helped referees make better decisions overall. The ability to check a decision from different angles and to be able to change it still stays as a strong argument in theory and in practice, despite some technical difficulties.
So, what are these technical difficulties? The most important issue definitely relates to offside decisions, especially those which are so close that decisions are based on a matter of millimeters. VAR technology works using still frames, and sometimes frames cannot depict the situation clearly enough to make a decision. For instance, it is hard to decide at which moment exactly the ball leaves the foot of a player. Essentially, this is all left up to the VAR’s subjective take. This is a huge problem when it comes to close calls, as it determines offside or onside.
To solve this issue, there should follow a standardization regarding what can be defined as the moment when the ball leaves a player's foot. If technology does not allow us to determine when that happens exactly, we can use a range of moments rather than one specific instant. This means that we have to have a certain minimum distance, below which we allow players to cross the offside line. I honestly have never understood how millimeters can affect the situation, let alone when it is an irrelevant part of the body which causes the offside. Thus, it would be a good idea, when it is a matter of millimeters, to give the attacking side a certain margin within which to forego the offside mark. A scientifically determined margin would be much more just than a subjective decision from the referee.
The second issue is the lack of communication between the fans and the referee, which causes the scapegoating of referees without giving them a chance to defend themselves. Yes, in some countries the referee's decision is shown on big screens and, in other competitions such as the Champions League, there are informative summary texts that appear; however, these are just announcements, not justifications. After the match, everyone is engulfed in arguments over the decision, but the only one with control over it is the referee. This allows ill-willed people to manipulate the narrative and target the most vulnerable, defenseless people in the footballing world: the referees.
Here, some propose that the referees inform fans themselves after a decision so that everyone can understand their justification. Nevertheless, I have some suspicions about this, as it would be hard to explain a decision to a baying crowd which is drenched in bias in support of their side. Instead, referees might be better off explaining their decision after the game, perhaps in an interview format. With these two amendments, the VAR system can be much more effective and the controversy could be put to rest.
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