VAR: Howard Webb's skewed videos

By Paul Gardner

In no time at all we shall be getting, in MLS, the benefits of video replays to help referees make the right calls.

Something that has taken soccer a decade or more to introduce, while we’ve all -- (I mean all of us, don’t I?) -- been hollering at the absurdity of instant replays being available to just about everyone in the world ... except the guy who matters, the referee.

Of course I’m in favor. Well, I was in favor ... until I viewed the four short videos assembled by Howard Webb, the English ex-referee (yes, another Brit) who is overseeing MLS’s introduction of the VAR -- the video assistant referee.

In the videos, Webb explains under what circumstances the VAR will be used -- namely, to review goalscoring, penalty kick decisions, red cards, and mistaken identity. I have no problem with that fourth category, which is straightforward and cries out for correction.

With the other three, I do have a serious problem -- or at least with Webb’s version of them. Consider this: during the four videos, Webb uses 11 replay clips to make various points. In nine cases, says Webb, the replays show “clear and obvious” errors by the referee. If a VAR had been at work in those games, he would have canceled the goals, penalty kicks and red cards given by the referees.

In the other two cases, a goal that was not allowed would be ruled legit, and a yellow card would be replaced by a red.

So, of Webb’s 11 examples, nine (81%) favor defenders. Which means that we’re immediately off on the wrong foot, as Webb’s examples make a strong suggestion that most of a VAR’s work will involve canceling a goal or a penalty kick or a red card.

In other words, the VAR is being called on to lend some sort of judgmental authority to soccer’s absurd insistence on making goalscoring as difficult as possible.

It cannot be an accident that Webb’s view of the game is so heavily tilted toward being lenient toward defensive play. Nor, I would say, is it anything new. Eight years back I watched Webb referee a Barcelona-Bayern Munich game, in which he distinguished himself by penalizing Lionel Messi for diving. The call was doubly egregious as the game also featured a particularly thuggish foul from Bayern Munich’s Mark van Bommel -- which Webb did not call. It seems quite likely that Webb doesn’t realize his own bias. But it is surely undeniable, not only in his video selections, but also in his explanatory comments, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the VAR’s job is to search for reasons to negate goals and penalties.

VARs must look for “infractions in the attacking phase of play which could possibly negate a goal” says Webb. Later he tells us that “When goals are scored, the VAR checks everyone in an attempt to reduce clear and obvious errors.” The referee, in turn, should check with the VAR because of possible reasons -- “like handball, offside, fouls, ball out of play” that might negate it. On penalty kicks, the VAR “looks for possible infractions that could possibly negate the award of a penalty.” That’s not all, Webb is also aware that the ref may have made an earlier bad call that might cancel a penalty kick: “Was there a mis-application of the Law before the penalty was awarded?”

Which sounds as though the VAR’s job is to actively look for reasons to kill goals. In fact, Webb states quite clearly that “the VAR can check to see if there’s any reason why a penalty kick or a DOGSO should be negated.”

Well OK. But the same sort of reasoning must be applied when a goal or a penalty kick or a red card is not given. Nowhere in the videos does Webb even come close to making that case. The evident enthusiasm he displays for canceling goals is not repeated when it comes to validating goals or penalty kicks.

And it cannot be claimed that appropriate videos are not available. I can recommend to Webb several examples of bad calls when obvious penalty kicks were not called (one of them from the recent Confederations Cup, a tournament in which the VAR system was used). That is the worrying thing -- because if Webb were interested, as he should be, in achieving a balance, he would have made sure to include one such video. I can only speculate, again, that Webb must be unaware of his prejudice ... though that 80% bias in the videos must be pretty difficult to ignore.

A true test of the VAR system, and of the referees who must make it work, would be to add a fifth category of reviewable incidents: diving calls. This will not be done as things stand, because diving calls do not involve a red card. But the knowledge that any diving call would be subject to immediate video review would, let us hope, compel referees to be much more circumspect in making these calls.

Webb has already touched on this topic (not in his videos) -- handing out a warning in threatening tones of righteous indignation. Divers, he says, will be subject to immediate punishment by VARs. Well, their diving will only get reviewed if it involves a penalty kick. I do think it would be much more revealing to have all diving calls reviewed. My interest here is to check on the referees making the calls, to make sure that they are subject to immediate action; not punishment, but to have their decisions nixed if they’re wrong. It would be nice to find out whether most of these calls are accurate, or whether we are dealing with a witch hunt.

35 comments about "VAR: Howard Webb's skewed videos ".
  1. Ric Fonseca, July 28, 2017 at 5:19 p.m.

    Know what, Senor Pablito? I'd prefer that everyone involved in the jogo bonito learn the LOTG first and foremost, from the youth to professional level, everywhere FIFA has established itself in the globe! What, say you a "...witch hunt...(sic)?" Sounds more like someone from Wash. DC (political, not the MLS team)!) To this, says yours truly, it looks like you are the one on a busqueda de brujas (with hunt) against Webb and any other of your current and former compatriots! Anyhow, just an opinion, I think, not a witch hunt!

  2. Bob Ashpole, July 28, 2017 at 5:25 p.m.

    I agree that reducing the number of goals scored is not a good objective. VAR could be used functionally as an additional assistant to reduce the misconduct that occurs around the box prior to restarts and violent conduct away from the ball. For example, biting and groping are clear misconduct that doesn't require the exercise of judgment like less serious matters that the referee may see and not call. While one could hope that such misconduct would never occur, violent conduct is something that deserves our full attention.

  3. Ginger Peeler replied, July 28, 2017 at 6:47 p.m.

    Spot on, Bob!

  4. Paul Berry, July 28, 2017 at 5:59 p.m.

    Isn't there an incentive for attacking players to ignore the offside flag and try to score in the hope that the decision will be reviewed?

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, July 28, 2017 at 6:18 p.m.

    Players are supposed to ignore flags and play until the referee whistles to stop play.

  6. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, July 28, 2017 at 7:03 p.m.

    For me, the problem with review of dives us that, in some cases, a player goes down without contact, because he is trying to avoid contact and loses his balance: or with only minimal contact. I doubt the VAR will have sufficient nuance to determine either situation. (Especially the latter; it's quite easy to take down an opponent moving at speed with the merest touch to a foot as he passes by)

  7. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, July 28, 2017 at 7:05 p.m.

    And by the way, Gardner's ethnic jibe at Howard Webb is extremely offensive.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, July 28, 2017 at 11:10 p.m.

    I didn't remember any "ethnic jibe." I even checked the phrase in the dictionary. Had to go to some British dictionaries to get the meaning. The common spelling in the states is "gibe" if you meant "taunt." Since I didn't recall any ethnic taunting, I reread the article and still don't see what you are upset about, unless you think I just jibed the Oxford English Dictionary by calling it British.

  9. Gus Keri replied, July 29, 2017 at 5:28 a.m.

    You probably are not aware that Gardner is also English, just like Webb.

  10. Ginger Peeler replied, July 29, 2017 at 8:12 a.m.

    How in the world is identifying a fellow Brit offensive?

  11. Jose Moreno, July 28, 2017 at 9:09 p.m.

    There will never be a perfect way of ruling soccer in the field, but one terrible inpression I have regarding possibly the most outrageous call I saw at Brazil 2014 is the one the Colombian referees call offsides not one but twice in the same game to the same player when he was not offsides, it cost Gio two goals and got two offsides for ever, yes for ever. That is in his record which makes a big difference in his rating forever, yes forever. I also sow two goals in another game which to my opinion were offsides which made Suares according to reports the creates player in the Cup but he bit a player and that put that claim to rest. I am in favor of any thing that might prevent this to happen ever again.

  12. Alvaro Bettucchi, July 28, 2017 at 9:11 p.m.

    Throughout my years playing and coaching soccer, and now a follower, I am in favor of any mechanism that will seek to improve the game. There is no greater emotion, than seeing a goal scored, or the move of a great individual skill or the outstanding group defensive or attacking play. The "BEL GIOCO" has to focus on both the defensive fouls and and the offensive fouls. The heavy physical contact by our own MLS, hopefully will be no more?

  13. John Soares, July 28, 2017 at 9:22 p.m.

    First objection is; Were these 11 videos "specifically" chosen. Or were they 11 in a row, or randomly chosen. IF, I can choose my evidence then I can easily make my case. Second Kyr makes a point that "should" be obvious. A player dribbling/off balance could be knock down by an eight year old. Point being; Just because a player goes down does NOT mean their was a foul or a dive. Refs to often feel the need to blow the whistle when no need existed. If you "think-maybe" there was a dive (went down to easy) let him/her stay on the ground and look stupid. VAR as suggested SHOULD be used toward punishing players for actions not seen/called by a ref. So far the trials have NOT improved the game. I think quite the opposite.

  14. beautiful game, July 28, 2017 at 11:09 p.m.

    I second S. R.'s opinion. I wouldn't wish for something (VAR) which has had limited testing and has exposed referee incompetence even after a review. As for diving, there should be no VAR review; it should be reviewed post game by league officials, and if guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, $5K fine and two game ban without pay. If this technology is not honed properly, the game will definitely suffer. As for Howard Webb; MLS made a big mistake hiring him.

  15. :: SilverRey :: replied, July 31, 2017 at 1:08 p.m.

    I tend to agree with this. The Review Committee should be handing out more dives as is, and I'm fine with upping the punishment.

  16. Gus Keri, July 29, 2017 at 5:34 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner, the VAR system is inherently biased. The referees' mistakes that lead to goals will be reviewed and some goals will be cancelled, while the mistakes that prevent goals, even if they were reviewed, can't be corrected by granting goals that were not scored, like in blowing whistle for offside when the call is not correct.

  17. Ginger Peeler, July 29, 2017 at 8:07 a.m.

    Gus, as I understand it, straight offside calls are not subject to review. However, if a goal is scored, but then the AR is seen signaling offside, that WOULD be reviewed...just like Gyasi Zardes' goal that was inaccurately discounted for offside when, in fact, he was on! The VAR will be most helpful in such cases.

  18. Ginger Peeler, July 29, 2017 at 8:19 a.m.

    Actually, (again, as I understand the process) the goal would be reviewed anyway. ALL goals will be reviewed for potential offside positioning by the scorer...or any other actions that might negate the goal.

  19. Ric Fonseca replied, July 29, 2017 at 7:01 p.m.

    To Ginger, hey I thought that the liquid a team trainer, or whomever, sprays or puts a big sponge in a bucket was the proverbial "holy water". And BTW, someone, anyone, can you please tell me or clarify for me just what is that stuff players sniff in the tunnel, ammonia tablets they sniff, and what purpose does it serve other than to wake you up, clear your head and your nasal passage? Landycakes used to do it and now I see more and more players taking a whiff!!!

  20. Ginger Peeler replied, July 30, 2017 at 1:24 a.m.

    Could be ammonia. Could be oxygen. Do you remember the oxygen bars fad in some larger cities (New York and San Francisco) 20-some years ago?

  21. Gus Keri, July 29, 2017 at 11:53 a.m.

    Ginger, here lies the bias. All goals will be reviewed and corrected. But if there is no goal, there will be no review. like in case the referee blows the whistle for offside and the players stopped playing. The TV replays show the offside call was wrong but there is no way to give the team a goal. In this scenario, VAR didn't help in adding to the score. This is an inherent bias.

  22. Ginger Peeler replied, July 29, 2017 at 1:13 p.m.

    Got it, Gus. If offside is called, incorrectly, and play stops, the game will continue on with no corrections. In other words, it's not one of the areas covered by the VAR, so play will continue even as it does now, without benefit of VAR. I suppose that if this type of thing happens very often, the powers-that-be might choose to tale a closer look at the way the situation is now handled and if they should add it to the 4 specific circumstances currently being reviewed.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, July 30, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    Ginger that is why I think VAR should have an expanded role in dealing with misconduct. Play does not have to be stopped. The referee can decide what to do and issue cards, is warranted, at the next stoppage. Issuing cards at the next stoppage is something that doesn't happen often because referees tend to lose focus on the misconduct while play continues. Persistent fouls is an example of misconduct where enforcement could be improved.

  24. R2 Dad, July 29, 2017 at 12:14 p.m.

    All things would be considered equal if you could un-blow a whistle. Given that impossibility, I think MLS should have been more concerned about the potential damage they could do to the game, instead of leaping into the breach. Officials have stern consequences for players and coaches that "bring the game into disrepute". Here is an example of an entire league on the verge of doing just that but US Soccer doesn't seem to care at all. MLS has set this up to turn the second half of the season into a complete cluster. Another case of Sunil conceding authority to Garber, but I guess we should just accept our fate, right? The elephants are dancing in the grass and the ants just pay the price? This specific decision is exactly why you want someone from the game making sporting decisions, instead of a talking head who only knows the boardroom. Or maybe I'm just a nattering nabob and we can all just continue whistling past the graveyard.

  25. Ginger Peeler replied, July 29, 2017 at 2:54 p.m.

    R2 Dad, MLS is not working in a vacuum. Besides us, Australia, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal are also trialing VAR. It was used during the recent Confederations Cup, after which the FIFA head of refereeing, Massimo Busacca, said he was pleased with the results and he also recognized that some areas need to be further addressed. That's the point of the live trials. You work out the bugs. And the center ref doesn't have to change any of his calls if he feels there's no need to do so. Even after reviewing the actions in question. Some calls have taken more time than hoped for, but that should be resolved as all the refs become more familiar with the system. How much time do we spend watching a player roll around in agony, waiting for the attendants to come on the field to squirt magic water onto the player's injuries, watching him hobbling off the field with the attendants' help, making an incredible recovery as soon as he gets to the sideline and then racing back onto the field in excellent condition? That often happens several times per game. Often the VAR calls are made in less time than that. Frankly, we needed the VAR during the CONCACAF Cup. Perhaps a 5th referee would have forced some refs to call plays according to TLOTG. Perhaps our referees will even improve with the VAR. One can always hope. I especially would like to see how Mark Geiger centers a game using VAR. He had so much promise when he reffed the World Cup, then seemed to lose his edge.

  26. R2 Dad replied, July 29, 2017 at 4:42 p.m.

    Ginger, I think the specific problem with VAR is that there are two understandings about how this process should work: the official's and the fan's. The officials might be happy but the fans most certainly won't. That's because fans want the correct call, given video evidence. The officials have a more structured use of the tool, with the aim of not undermining the center referee. So far, the VAR process at the Confed Cup was a mixed bag, with a couple glaring holes. Have those holes been filled, questions answered? I've seen nothing that tells me so. We have already seen players indicating with their hands, requesting the screen to decide. I fear we are only opening Pandora's Box by applying it across the board in MLS, before these questions can be confidently answered. I hope I'm wrong. Otherwise, every weekend will bring a new situation where the VAR process only complicates and obfuscates. After 4 months of that, I'm betting dollars to donuts MLS will suspend VAR until such time blah blah blah. If Peter Walton signed off on this he will most certainly be let go--maybe that will finally make PG happy-ish.

  27. beautiful game, July 29, 2017 at 12:46 p.m.

    Time to change the offside rule to "daylight between player" and VAR will work in that situation.

  28. Bob Ashpole replied, July 30, 2017 at 5:08 p.m.

    Nothing has changed the game more drastically than changes to the offside law. I am conservative and don't want it changed further.

  29. Kelly Ross, July 29, 2017 at 1:23 p.m.

    To further placate Gardner's point regarding obvious omissions in Webb's officiating history; to me, most notably, Webb's failure to send off Netherlands midfielder Nigel de Jong when de Jong crashed a high boot into the chest of Spain's Xabi Alonso om the 2010 World Cup Final. VAR would have certainly confirmed a requirement for issuing a red card on that play, and turning the balance of the game.

  30. Kelly Ross, July 29, 2017 at 1:26 p.m.

    The benefits of VAR should be to (1) vindicate the referee when a decision is correctly given and (2) to correct obvious errors when a decision is incorrectly given. The multitude of challenges will now, ultimately, create the soon to be normalcy of leaning on technology to officiate games going forward (necessitated by the incessant gestures by players and coaches to "check the video" on every contested play). Baseball may not look so bad as a summer American past-time in the coming playing seasons.

  31. Ric Fonseca, July 29, 2017 at 6:58 p.m.

    R2D2 Dad: How can the VAR be "inherently biased?" As everyone knows all it is is a record of the action played, then reviewed by a couple of guys... heck I still don't know where you get this from! Ginger above has hit the nail on the head with her comments and answers to your concerns, so to Ginger I say, PLAY ON, I say, PLAY ON!!!

  32. R2 Dad replied, July 29, 2017 at 10:45 p.m.

    Ric, here's what the journalists are describing as "a shambles", "a farce":

    How will the MLS version of VAR be better than FIFAs in order to address the shortcomings listed in above articles?

  33. Ginger Peeler, July 30, 2017 at 1:19 a.m.

    R2 Dad, I read several, but not all, of the articles you referenced. I thought I had pretty much addressed most of those concerns. On decision time: they'll shorten the time as they become more experienced with the system. When a referee continually chooses not to correct a mistaken call? There's a simple solution that was looking all of us in the face; handle them as the World Cup refs are: give them no more games. Back when my kids were refs, just touching a referee was a cardable offense. Teams and their coaches were given instructions on how to properly communicate with refs before the start of a game. It's time for that same kind of talk about all the players surrounding the referee to object to a call. Actually, communications with the ref for were mostly limited to the team captains. One of the articles you referenced mentioned intent being factored into a foul. Okay, it's been about 20 years since I had a referee living at home, but I thought the Rules had been rewritten to take intent out. A foul is a foul, whether deliberate or inadvertent. At least one of the articles you referenced ended on an upbeat note by the writer. It promises to be an interesting learning experience for all of us.

  34. Kent James, July 30, 2017 at 4:53 p.m.

    PG is correct that the way the VAR is set up, there is a bias against goalscoring (since all goals/pks are subject to review, whereas things that prevented goals (fouls committed, but not called) are not reviewed. This is a concession to people who want to minimize the interruptions of the VAR (which I think is an appropriate concession). But if referees are encouraged to err on the side of calling fouls in the box (knowing they can be reviewed) instead of only calling if they're sure (as is likely the case now), it may not be so defensively oriented. And more obviously, if an AR in a game using VAR only calls obvious offside situations, and lets ALL close ones play on, this could lead to more goals (since players would never be inappropriately called offside) and fewer interruptions (because even players who were offside (in close situations the AR did not flag) would not stop the play unless they scored. So while PG is right about the bias, referees could be taught to minimize the bias (and in the future, if its not too disruptive, maybe the VAR can be allowed to make some calls that were missed, though it's harder to see how that would work).

  35. Nick Daverese, July 31, 2017 at 7:27 a.m.

    I think who ever runs the show on anything has personal feelings about the game that enters into on how something is done in the game.

    I was a back when I became a coach the only thing I feared was the opponents counter attack. So as a coach I never wanted our team to lose a game from a counter attack goal. So we worked on not letting in goals from a counter. The reverse was also true on attack we worked on our counter to try and score goals from a counter. After we won the ball. If we could not do it by the third pass then we worked on a possession game. It all depends on how you were brought up playing the game. Then you are always learning and adding what you learned to the game you already had. Best advice I ever got from a coach was this. I used to say if your winning if it's not broken don't fix it. But he said if you want to dominate if it is not broken then breake it and make it even better.

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