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.