Soccer, luck and VAR

Recently I started reading a book “The Numbers Game” (*). The authors of the book are academicians. Some their findings are stunning for the lovers of our beautiful game. After analyzing tons of data, they come to the conclusion that soccer is a 50/50 game. “Half of it is luck, half of it is skill.”

They have other stunning conclusions based on analysis of data. Some of the most stunning ones are the facts that soccer has the least success rate of pregame favorites in team sports (team handball, basketball, football and baseball) and is the lowest scoring one among them also (football, rugby union, rugby league, basketball and ice hockey). For the last 20 years, goals per game have been plateauing to an average of 2.5 to 3.0 goals per game. So goals are rare and random in soccer according to their analysis of data. There are other very interesting findings in the book, I will let the soccer enthusiasts to go ahead and read to book to find out those findings.

I always believed in luck in soccer, but not to the 50/50 extent. You might ask, do Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich win their games with 50 percent luck? Naturally not. But they do lose and win by luck with a good percentage. Overall for all leagues and teams, the average breakdown of 50/50 might be true. Otherwise, how can one explain Greece and Portugal winning the European championships in 2004 and 2016, respectively? They were neither the favorites to win the tournament nor had better game statistics during the tournament then their opponents.

What they mean by luck are actually things that neither team can control during a game. Errors made by individuals, team defense errors especially during set plays and officiating mistakes. If you watch any soccer game you will witness far more individual or team coverage errors -- which are caused by individuals who are not covering their area of responsibility properly -- than any other team sport.
The luck list also includes bounces of players, the pitch and woodwork as well as weather conditions which can be categorized as random. Actually, it is also a known fact that there is no such thing as randomness. If you can measure and control all the parameters, then during a coin toss you can predict the outcome with 100 percent certainty.

Why is soccer different from all other team sports in terms of this high level of uncertainty? All other sports are played with hands whereas soccer is played with feet. If I give a soccer ball to someone who never kicked a soccer ball or threw a ball and ask them to hit target 10 yards away by kicking and throwing the ball, which will be more effective do you think? Naturally, the thrown ball will hit the target at a higher rate than the kicked ball. After all, we eat, write and create art with our hands, but we use our feet to run or walk. Hence, it takes genetic skills and lots and lots of practice to tune our kicking skills to perfection compared to skills that require hand eye coordination.

Compare a team handball game and a game of soccer which have a lot of similarities except that the ball is directed to your teammate or the goal with the hand in team handball rather than the foot in soccer. The shots on target and passes completed percentage in team handball cannot be even compared with soccer.

Soccer has reached perfection for a game to be played with less efficient organ of our two peripherals. Still, it has a lot of errors and hence the factor of luck is in the game.

A soccer game is now a game not to be won but not to be lost. Even the famous tiki-taka of Barca was designed to minimize the human error with short passes and minimizing the team error by keeping the ball in Barca’s possession.

The patron saints of soccer has tried to change the LOTG and rules of competition (three-point system), neither helped to increase the average goal per game to over three goals per game.

Since there is not much improvement expected in the near future for errors on the human/player side, the patron saints turned their attention to refereeing errors. First, they tried to increase the number of officials on the field. The Additional Assistant Referees (AAR) are not being utilized in any major national league any more. Its future with UEFA competitions is highly debatable. In parallel to AAR application  the Goal-Line Technology (GLT) was developed. Although the necessity is very rare -- think of Geoff Hurst’s goal (or non-goal) in the 1966 WC and Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in the 2010 WC, that was not given -- but very critical the use of GLT has been highly successful. Since GLT is very expensive, its cost/benefit is being scrutinized.

VAR in 2017
English Premier League
Yes No
German Bundesliga
Yes Starts Aug. 18
Spanish La Liga
No No
Italian Serie A
Yes Starts Aug. 19
French Ligue 1
Yes No
Major League Soccer
No Started Aug. 5
Australian A-League
No Started April 7

The next step was the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). FIFA used the system in various FIFA competitions and is planning to use it for the 2018 WC in Russia. MLS decided not to use GLT but opted to use the VAR system. Although the A-League in Australia has started the VAR system in April 2017, MLS will be the first major league to implement it. I congratulate MLS/PRO for taking this risky but very courageous decision. History will remember successful pioneers and not the pioneers who tried and failed. Amundsen is remembered by history as the first human who reached the South Pole, the others who tried and failed are long forgotten.

One should not forget that the VAR system is experimental. IFAB is experimenting it with various leagues and competitions. MLS volunteered for this experimentation along with other leagues. It is probable that IFAB especially after the 2018 WC might decide to change the current protocol or postpone the application of VAR for a while or completely abolish it.

I read both of my colleagues Paul Gardner’s and Paul Kennedy’s comments about Howard Webb’s and Jeff Agoos' explanation of the VAR implementation. Webb’s articulated the subject material extremely well for the spectators and lovers of the game in this country. I read my colleagues’ articles with great interest although I have some questions about some of their conclusions.

One thing is for certain, the “defensive nature” of VAR technology and implementation has got nothing to do with Howard Webb’s or PRO’s approach to the game. Unless IFAB changes the LOTG radically to fit the VAR application, there will be far many goals disallowed using the VAR technology than disallowed goals to be overturned.

I would like to comment on the specific VAR application of MLS after several weeks of play since I want to see the application on the pitch.

I do have two reservations for the VAR system. One of them is technological and is most probably confined to the MLS experience. The other one is a human factor which is global in nature.

The weakest link in the VAR application is the TV broadcast quality. Unless all the stadiums have similar camera positions that support the VAR application and all broadcasters use the same number of cameras, the element of “luck” will survive. Without proper and correct camera positionings, the VAR can’t decide on offside/onside accurately. Unless you have goal line cameras -- since MLS does not use GLT -- some goals that cross the line might not be noticed or vice versa. We have witnessed such a case during Howard Webb’s presentation. So teams whose broadcasts have better camera angles will be “luckier” than others.

The other one is a human factor. The very reason why the AAR system failed in the European leagues exists for the VAR system in league competitions. In the AAR system, you need six officials: one referee, two assistant referees, one fourth official and two AARs. In league competitions where 9-11 games are played each week, it is very difficult to find AARs of the same experience level as the referees. This does not pose a problem in the UEFA competitions, since usually both ARRs are also FIFA referees. When the AAR is junior and less experienced than the referee, then two things might occur: The AAR is so overwhelmed by the referee’s experience/badge that he is very reluctant and hesitant to interfere with his/her decisions. Or the AAR wants to be under the limelight and prove himself/herself. The AAR makes up decisions that under normal circumstances an experienced referee would not.

We have a similar problem for the League applications for the VAR system. This system also requires six officials. Instead of two AARs now we have a VAR and an AVAR. The humanly factor is still there, although being in a cabin instead of in front of thousands of spectators might make the VAR system less vulnerable to the danger mentioned above.

We have to live and see. Both MLS/PRO and IFAB will learn from experience and develop the system. Over time we will see whether the VAR system will decrease the “luck” factor in the game, although it -- like its predecessors - definitely will not contribute to increase the number of goals scored.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

(*) “Why everything you know about soccer is wrong: The Numbers Game” by Chris Anderson and David Sally, Penguin Books 2013
4 comments about "Soccer, luck and VAR".
  1. Gus Keri, August 11, 2017 at 8:34 p.m.

    VAR doesn't care how many cameras there are in each game. It cares only about preventing a glaring error that can be seen in whatever cameras available to the TV audience.

  2. Nick Daverese, August 12, 2017 at 7:51 a.m.

    How much luck has to do with our game? I found the more time you spend on the practice field the luckier the team is. On scoring I have heard for decades that our sport does not score enough. Well there are more ways to score in American football field goals are worth 3 pts 1 touch down is 6 pts and the point after is another point. We have plenty of scoring. I keep certain statistics in our game that matter to me. I found have 2 good strikers and another one coming off the bench is work apx 2.5 goals a game over the course of a season. Basement ball is a lot smaller playing field. So they will have more scoring just because of that. What scoring go bowling that is a fun game :) actually there was a time I liked bowling I traveled from Manhattan to the Bronx as a kid so I could bowl at Stadium lanes. Just outside of the old Yankee stadium you know why? Because the games were 25 cents a game there instead of 50 cents a game :) luck does enter our game. We once hit the post 12 times in a game and only won 2-0. A lot of mismatched games in tournaments the score could be 18-0. Then the losing coach will say they could have held the score down. I say goal differential matters in tournaments. Want to keep the score low take some practice time and work on individual and team defense that lowers the score.

  3. beautiful game, August 12, 2017 at 5:56 p.m.

    The position of cameras is crucial and the described "glaring error" will rest mostly on the referee's final determination. That's why a VAR official needs to make the decisive decision based solely on VAR footage. As for luck, IMHO,it makes a difference based on the efficacy of the players.

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