Commentary

Are Video Refs suffocating soccer?

"Not just an atmosphere-killer, but a wrong decision too," said SC Freiburg striker Nils Petersen after his team were denied a 4-3 stoppage-time win over VfL Wolfsburg the weekend before last. Having come back from 1-3 down to seemingly win the game in the 93rd minute, the video assistant referee (VAR) intervened to declare that Freiburg defender Dominique Heintz had been in an offside position that may have impeded the view of Wolfsburg's keeper Koen Casteels.



Freiburg was involved in another VAR controversy this past weekend, away at Schalke. First it was awarded a penalty for handball against Schalke's midfielder Omar Mascarell. Then, on a prompt from the VAR, referee Frank Willenborg took another look and decided that it wasn't handball after all, although it's exactly the kind of penalty award we've seen hundreds of times. "I'm old-fashioned and conservative," said Freibrug's coach Christian Streich(no doubt with some irony, as he's anything but). "I'd rather have the game as it was before. It wouldn't be more just, but it would be the game I've known for the past 30 years." The game finished 0-0.

A third example of dubious VAR intervention came in last week's Champions League game between Ajax Amsterdam and Real Madrid. Long after Ajax players and fans had finished celebrating what had seemed like the Dutch side's opening goal, the VAR declared that forward Dusan Tadic had impeded Real's goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, as Ajax defender Nicolas Tagliafico's header was looping far beyond his reach. No Madrid players had protested (not even Sergio Ramos, who usually complains if the coin toss doesn't go his way), and Spanish newspaper El País rightly called it a "goal, that looked like a goal."

UEFA immediately tweeted that it had been the right call. The German federation had likewise backed its VAR for cancelling out Freiburg's winner against Wolfsburg, calling it "an absolutely correct decision." Yet all three cases cited above were example of VARs overstepping their remit. They are only supposed to intercede when there has been a clear mistake. Here we lost two goals which -- had they stood -- barely anyone would have bothered to discuss or dispute. And a penalty kick that might have decided a mediocre goalless tie.

Video evidence was a logical consequence of the raised financial stakes in professional soccer. It has taken the pressure off the lone center referee, and has seen many unjust decisions overturned. Its introduction was inevitable, for better and worse, and it's difficult to imagine that it will be repealed, despite the nostalgic longing of Freiburg's Streich.

What must be avoided, though, is that the VAR becomes -- to quote again Petersen's words -- an atmosphere-killer. That instead of talking about a dramatic late winner in a seven-goal game, we are left standing around while officials agonize over millimeters and minutiae. Savvy supporters will often cast a quick glance at the referee and his assistant immediately after their team's scored a goal, just to check that there was nothing amiss. When all looks clear, the celebrations begin. Now, it's becoming hard for us to let go, because no one wants to look a fool. You don't want to jump up and down for a minute, screaming and hugging fellow fans, only to see the man in the middle touching his earpiece, making the "Charades" TV screen gesture, and then running towards the sideline for a second (and third and fourth) look.

The skeptics warned us that this would be the consequence of using video evidence, and they have an increasingly strong case. Many of these close calls have to be watched several times over, which means not everyone's going to agree even once a final decision's been made. It also means that players and fans are standing around for minutes at a time, interrupting the game's natural flow, and providing fuel for critics who foresee a time when a 90-minute soccer match will be stretched out to two or three hours, like games in the stoppage-plagued NFL and NHL.

We end up in a philosophical discussion about the very essence of sport. Just how important is making the correct decision when weighed up against the tenor, the tradition and the feel of soccer? Should we eliminate notorious officiating howlers from the game's narrative? Doesn't the most-deserving team almost always end up winning anyway? An errant hand here, an offside shin there -- shouldn't we accept controversial, erroneous and marginal calls as part of soccer, just as we did for its first 150 years.

As recently as last fall, I was urging the out-of-step Premier League to hurry up and introduce the VAR, and next season it will. Now, like the isolated referee watching the ninth re-run of that trip in the box, I'm no longer quite so sure.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

14 comments about "Are Video Refs suffocating soccer?".
  1. Martin Cole, February 18, 2019 at 2:15 p.m.

    VAR was supposed to only correct clear and obvious errors that directly lead to a goal...but as in all sports, once you have replay/review, it starts to get used for more and more plays throughout the match ("we should get every call right, shouldn't we?"); every close-call offside can be checked in stop action!  NO!  Plus, it has changed the way games are officiated; ARs are instructed to not signal offside on close plays and let the play evolve, since it can be reviewed later.  That's not how I learned to referee!  NO!

  2. R2 Dad, February 18, 2019 at 2:39 p.m.

    Your points are well-taken, Ian, and a critical eye should be cast on VAR. But I think there is no going back on this--allowing the Henri handling vs Ireland to repeat is too high a price for the fans to pay. What SHOULD happen is that now we've had a couple of years of VAR under our collective belts, FIFA and the confederations should look at best practices (since VAR system are not all the same), to choose the version that is least intrusive, quickest to react with the fewest errors. I want to see and hear "What the game wants", but we're not consistently getting that yet. NIMBYism would be a poor reason not to adopt some other confederation/league's version, but I fear that is exactly what the next hurdle will be. FWIW, I think the Bundesliga VAR system is working well in general--some referees integrate the process better than others, some have bad luck with difficult situations that expose the weaknesses in the current system as it is employed.

    Please keep writing about officiating issues, as they are critical to the perception of fairness in the game.

  3. Kent James, February 18, 2019 at 3:20 p.m.

    I agree with R2.  No system is perfect.  Any system that eliminates game changing bad calls is a plus.  After that,it's debatable how fine the detail should be in getting things absolutely right; if striving for perfection is too intrusive, then back off a bit.  On the other hand, maybe close analysis will require that FIFA get more consistent about things like what actually constitutes handling (too many cases of "I've seen that called before, but he let it go").  Refereeing should not be arbitrary...

  4. Wooden Ships, February 18, 2019 at 5:39 p.m.

    For me, it was never going to make the game better, for several reasons. But, people don’t like to get jobbed, boo hoo. 

  5. John Soares, February 18, 2019 at 6:59 p.m.

    In answer to the original "title" question YES!!!
    To Martin's point it was supposed to be a rare call/use.
    It is not "ALL" VAR fault
    The real concern is the impact on referreing 
    Why make a close call when I can rely on VAR.
    Many rather obvious off side calls are not made relying on VAR
    Not good for the game and creating a pontially dangerous situation for players
    Many injuries happen in the last effort to score agoal involving an agrresive defender and or goalie

  6. frank schoon, February 18, 2019 at 7:20 p.m.

    Well,apparently every week in Holland there are arguments and discussions about questionable VAR calls, that leaves room for interpretation.  Some who were positive about the VAR are now having doubts.   It should only be used for goal line calls and leave the rest up to the ref... we don’t need VAR, soccer has fared pretty well warts and all for over 100 years ..

  7. Nathan Hellyer, February 18, 2019 at 7:47 p.m.

    As a season ticket holder who attends MLS games i have come to hate VAR. It kills the atmosphere. You don't know what to celebrate. Like the author points out, the problem is that minor stuff gets reviewed that is so far removed from the goal in time and space and so benign you wonder why it was reviewed in the first place. And waiting for the decision.....takes way too long. VAR is not good for the fan experience. It should be used only when there is a clear and crucial dispute.

  8. Randy Vogt, February 18, 2019 at 8:41 p.m.

    To cut down on the interruptions, I would only want clear and obvious errors to be reviewed and not worry if an attacker's knee is just a silly millimeter ahead of the second-to-last defender. To cut down on the length of the interruption, experiment with VAR telling the officials which decisions need to be reversed without any ref review so we don't have the ref running over to a TV screen, reviewing the play, then running back on to the field and giving the decision as this all takes time and interrupts the flow of the game.

  9. beautiful game, February 18, 2019 at 10:23 p.m.

    VAR has has its hiccups, but it should be used as a witness to red cards missed with severe punishment for divers after the fact.

  10. John Polis, February 19, 2019 at 1:12 a.m.

    The story is right in saying that VAR intervenes when there is a clear and obvious error. But there is one other item included in the DFB regarding the use of VAR. The referee is also supposed to intervene if there is something apparent that the referee clearly could not see because of his position. That opens a lot of other options, which may have come into play in the games described in this story. IMO allowing VAR to intervene in cases or situations that the referee could not see, makes it much more prevalent in German games. That said, the mistake or out of position situation is brought to the referee's attention, so that he can go to the sideline for a review. 

    Reply

  11. John Soares, February 19, 2019 at 11:45 a.m.

    The comments above are evidence if not proof that VAR has not helped the game.
    Just added a whole new set of arguments. Something the game did not need.
    The original "goal line" idea... great.
    Beyond that, it has become a negative, for the game and for the fans.


  12. Lynn Berling-manuel, February 20, 2019 at 6:37 a.m.

    Steven Goff is still one of only a small group of soccer journalists that understand the game, the structure and the context of American soccer. Mike Woitalla and Paul Kennedy are included in that too-small fraternity/sorority.

  13. R2 Dad, February 20, 2019 at 3:40 p.m.

    Wow--the Spanish ref is looking weak and indecisive on this Schalke/City CL match. VAR isn't giving the neutral "what the game wants" here. Took forever to announce the PK and yellow card, making the referee look poor. It's  slowing down the match too much.

  14. frank schoon replied, February 21, 2019 at 7:55 a.m.

    Exactly, R2,   Do we really need this crap-ola? 

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