Commentary

VARs -- a new elite group among referees, something soccer does not need

The responsibility for what happens on the field during a soccer game is shared by players, coaches and game officials.

We hear a lot -- maybe too much -- from the coaches and players. They do press and TV interviews, they sit on TV guru panels, they write books, they twitter and tweet, they are rarely out of the headlines.

But we hear next to nothing from the referees, the key figures among the officials. This is traditional. It has long been considered that the best referee is one whom nobody notices, who glides almost unseen and unheard through a game, keeping his interventions to the minimum necessary to allow the smooth progress of a cleanly played game.

This softly-softly approach has a lot to recommend it. It has worked well enough during most of soccer’s 150 year life. Or so it seems.

Yet that doesn’t sound right. How many other institutions, born 150 years ago in Victorian England, survive virtually unchanged? Hell, even the supposedly invincible British empire itself has vanished.

In this modern world of fast-moving changes, soccer itself has changed considerably, adapting to outside pressures and influences. But within the sport the notion of the anonymous, silent referee persists.

Should that be so? Does it make any sense that the man in charge of a highly organized professional activity in 2019 should still be acting like a Victorian father figure? By which I mean, one who does not need to explain or justify his decisions? One whose word is Law.

Soccer’s rules are still, ludicrously, called Laws -- a sure sign that cob-webbed Victorian attitudes persist. Those attitudes should not be seen as cutely old-fashioned. They have an objectionable edge to them, as they reflect privilege. The class privilege that was at the core of Victorian England.

In that context the referee was a superior being, an autocrat whose decisions were Law. They were not to be questioned, and he was not obliged to explain them.

The great unwashed -- that includes you, and me, and almost everyone else -- must not be allowed to know how a referee arrives at his decisions, or even what those decisions are. Throughout soccer’s long history, there has never been an officially recognized set of signals by which a referee could immediately identify his calls.

There has in fact been a totally hostile attitude to such an idea, and you don’t have to go back too far for the proof. In the 1970s a FIFA Referees Memorandum warned sternly: “It is not the duty of the referee nor is it a useful function to explain his decisions to the players or spectators. Any attempt to do so can lead to confusion, uncertainty and delay.”

Things had not improved by 1997 when UEFA issued an “Instruction to Referees” memo stating: “In numerous cases one sees too many gestures of any kind or particularly theatrical behavior of the referees.”

Are things any better today? Slightly. The rules of the game do include more signals for referees and ARs. But there is still no comprehensive list -- meaning there is no official signal for offside, or for tripping, or for dangerous play.

This is inexcusable. Referees are being asked to identify their calls. That is all. Not to explain them. My feeling is that it would take less than a week’s work for a group -- not more than four, I think -- of experienced referees to come up with the required list of signals.

Yet this has never been attempted. Not even discussed as far as I know. So we must be left in the dark about crucial calls.

But this rearguard action by referees, trying to retain privileges they should not have, is on the verge of being blown apart.

Technology is to blame, in the person of the VAR. The VAR will reveal all. Make it plain what the call was, and prove it with TV images.

So far so good. Goodbye to unnecessary secrecy. Goodbye to serious errors. But we’ve learned by now that the VAR and his phalanx of helpers and TV monitors cannot stop there. We are now quite familiar with long delays as the VAR looks at offside calls -- and eventually manages to nix a goal because of a millimetric infringement. These millimetric -- call them sillymetric -- calls have taken offside calls away from the referee. They now belong to technology. Look, see that foot there, at least 6 inches over the offside line ... and of course we can also prove the exact instant when the ball was passed forward, so why would a referee even think about quibbling?

Come to that, why would his AR bother to flag those close offside calls? Just leave it to the boffins. This is actually a better way of handling things -- let play go on and if a goal is scored let VAR decide whether it’s legit or not.

Logically, then, all close offside calls should be handled by the VAR and his gang. Meaning that play would always be allowed to continue (maybe with “a flag on the play” a la NFL)) and then reviewed.

Thus, slowly, insidiously, VAR technology will take over and the on field referee will have little to do except maybe keeping order at throw-ins.

A new order of referees has arrived, superior in their high-level view of things, superior in their measured judgments, superior in that their decisions are the ones that get accepted. If that is what is happening, it is inevitable that this new clique of superior air-conditioned, replay-watching, technology-backed referees will replace the sweaty whistle-blowers as the sport’s elite officials.

No, I don’t like that scenario at all. I believe in the traditional referee. The referee on the field, part of the action. But that referee needs to abandon his aloofness, to adopt a more human profile.

It is inexplicable that referees never speak out (or don’t do so until they’ve retired), that we never hear about topics of interest or concern to referees. There is no leadership among referees. By trying to retain their Victorian air of privilege and superiority they have succeeded only in becoming a silent group whose work and reliability are taken for granted.

A supine attitude that seems quite wrong for this large and intelligent part of the soccer scene, failing to see themselves in the same light as others so often see them: as faithful acolytes cowed into silence by their monopolistic bosses, fearful that any dissenting words will result in them being blackballed, never to be given another meaningful game assignment.

Now, as technology enlarges its grasp, the referees -- the real on-field referees -- face the threat of becoming superfluous. An internal threat of being replaced not by computers, but by a new tier of elite referees. The VARs.

Whatever the advantages offered by VAR -- and I can think of several important ones -- I’m left wondering whether they are worth my watching the painful sight of an on-field referee delaying a game as he listens obediently to the VAR on his headset, then trots off to watch a replay, then returns to cancel a call he has already made. An experienced referee at the beck and call of a superior VAR. I don’t like it. Everything about it feels wrong. Especially this wretched referee silence.

24 comments about "VARs -- a new elite group among referees, something soccer does not need".
  1. frank schoon, July 14, 2019 at 9:35 a.m.

    Is the VAR worth all the 'UNFORESEEN' complications that are popping up which we never thought about...Penalties are now being called for fouls that no one watching were even aware that are happening at the moment. I grew up watching soccer and the fans would see a foul ,a clear foul, which was, fair enough, a penalty. But now the VAR can catch a "minute' transgression that no one was even aware, which you can't argue with, but you end up asking is that foul really worth a penalty...Just like the offsides calls where the player is 5inches or less offsides, which to me gets into the area of bean counting....If you can see clearly the offsides without having to use of a camera getting into minute detail metrics that's to me is good enough. I'm willing to bet ,sooner of later,  the VAR will  measure if the opponents are positioned the correct distance to the inch from the ball in a direct kick.
    Get rid of the VAR now and employ  it only for goal line technology...

  2. Hat Trick replied, July 17, 2019 at 5:53 p.m.

    Agree Frank.  Is it a goal or isn’t it.  

  3. John Soares, July 14, 2019 at 12:48 p.m.

    Frank, AMEN!!!

    As a referree with near 3,000 games....granted at a lower level.
    I'm also fine with the referee staying as invisible as possible.
    His job is still to keep the game fair and flowing... not be the "star". 

  4. Kent James, July 14, 2019 at 1:36 p.m.

    Sorry Paul, I like VAR. Yes, it has bugs that need to be worked out, and sure, one can take a good thing too far, but given how just a few decisions can affect the outcome of a game, it is important to get those decisions right if we can do it. I refereed for many years, and my worst nightmare was getting a game critical call wrong.  If VAR could help me get it right, I'd welcome it.  It is ironic that you often talk about the arrogance and the ego of some referees who make the game all about them (and we've all known refs like this), yet now you want the ref on the field to be that way (what? Question my call? I can't possibly be wrong, I'm the referee!).  I think it is fair to debate whether the on call ref should have the final decision (in an ideal world, yes) or have a VAR have the capacity to overrule (which would lead to the scenario PG was describing, but would be much faster than making the on-field ref run over to the monitor to look and evaluate himself).  It's got flaws that need to be worked out, but I'm definitely in favor of it (especially for things like offside, where it is pretty clear whether the call is right or not).  And yeah, if we had robots that called perfect games, I'd be okay with that, not yearning for some storied past when referees were unquestioned authorities on the field...

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2019 at 1:57 a.m.

    I agree with Kent. Somehow we need to deal with cheaters and misconduct. The threat of video review lessens the chance that cheating and misconduct will slip by the officials. 

    Ever been the victim of misconduct away from the ball? Ever been injured by misconduct away from the ball? I have. Unfortunately there are players who will cheat when the officials are looking elsewhere--at every level of play.

    Officials need help to control the cheating inside the penalty area before restarts.

  6. frank schoon replied, July 15, 2019 at 6:46 a.m.

     Bob, restarts ,especially on corner kicks, are filled with fouls...I would characterize the penalty box as a cesspool of fouls . There are consistently more fouls created in this area than anywhere else, but you rarely see them called. Van Hanegem over a decade ago mentioned this problem. It is the places of all places on the field where fouls, and I mean FOULS, are created. A ref would have his wallet and whistle picked if he placed himself among that ‘bunch’ in the penalty area waiting for the corner kick to come. You would think that after every corner kick, the game is stopped for the ref would have called a penalty or a free kick, but it rarely ever happens. I blame refs for totally overlooking this problem in the penalty box, instead the refs would ready call the easy ones out in the open field.
    Today, with all the cameras on the field it is very easy to catch, what you would call cheaters. In an interview with one of the old retired Dutch players of the 70’s who stated in those days there were perhaps one or two cameras on the field which meant players would get away with giving someone smack off the ball but today would be impossible to do without being caught.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2019 at 12:23 p.m.

    Agreed, Frank. Anything that makes the game safer, looking at the big picture, extends the carreers of players and raises the level of play. Fans looking for blood should get enough watching a minor league hockey match. (I love hockey, but hockey is supposed to have violent play, not soccer.)

  8. uffe gustafsson, July 14, 2019 at 4:54 p.m.

    I thought the men’s WC in Russia worked just fine with VAR, but how they implemented VAR at women’s WC had much to be changed. I don’t like how AR was not to raise the flag for offside until the attack was over and done with, especially when it was clear as day it was offside. That rule need to back to the drawing board. Penalty was another issue as well, how many penalties was giving because of VAR, some of them I found to be questionable. Every game had like 7 minutes of extra time because of VAR, think the quest for perfection is getting a bit to much.
    but if they continue to tweak things it could be positive thing, but now it’s a time wasteing thing.

  9. R2 Dad replied, July 14, 2019 at 11:13 p.m.

    Agreed. IFAB's recent Handling revision started appearing in the CL final this spring, with more major changes implemented right at the Women's World Cup with re-interpretations of keeper movement during KFTM/PKs. Combined with additional VAR interventions as Paul mentions, and we got a tsunami of questionable officiating, all of it preventable. Definitely not what the "game expects". Very curious how the BU17 WC in Brazil later this year handles these same issues. Will there be backtracking on these new pronouncements?

  10. beautiful game replied, July 16, 2019 at 2:50 p.m.

    Disagree, VAR may have worked fine, but the decision-making process was mediocre at 2018 WC

  11. Nathan Hellyer, July 15, 2019 at 8:24 a.m.

    I agree. I love watching soccer for its spontaneity and fluidity. VAR kills some of that joy and introduces more problems than it solves. Currently, when plays are reviewed seems subjective. There are as many errors with this as a bad call in the moment.

  12. beautiful game replied, July 16, 2019 at 2:52 p.m.

    Good point N.H.

  13. Jonas Cox, July 15, 2019 at 11:30 a.m.

    If they’re using unmodified TV technology for VAR, do they really know the exact moment the ball was struck for an offsides call?  Generally speaking, TV beaks a second of action into 30 frames; in other words, it takes a picture every 30th of a second.  Plenty granular for most viewing purposes, but action can take place in the brief intervals that *aren’t* getting captured. So the frame of video that purports to show when the ball was struck might, in fact, not.  So perhaps higher speed cameras are needed; 60 frames per second or 120 frames per second, for example.  If you’re going to use technology to replace human judgement, why stop at almost?

  14. beautiful game, July 15, 2019 at 3:52 p.m.

    I agree with Paul. Referees remain silent just as they are instructed from top, FIFA, down to the trickle down global federations. They are apartchiks for the glory of FIFA's Infantino and his predecessors.

  15. beautiful game, July 15, 2019 at 4:09 p.m.

    The way to deal with players cheating is to punish them either on the spot or after a post-game review. There is a lack of player discipline and that is the fault of referees not doing their job and 'federations' enabling them. There are four referees assigned to in a pro-game. That fourth official on the sidelines looks like he/she is not involved with the events on the pitch. They are probably instructed to keep silent in order not to overwhelm the referee with what he doesn't see or does not want to see. Give the fourth official a voice. Why not have a fifth official  assigned to the VAR OPS Center to relay any off-the-ball shananigans and make the final disposition on reviews. That can be done in less than 30-seconds with the most intensive review. VAR has its value, but FIFA continues to remain comatose on a plethora of issues that need re-invention for the game.

  16. Kent James replied, July 15, 2019 at 10:03 p.m.

    Well said BG.  If referees enforced things, they’d stop (my pet peeve is delaying the restart, since that would be simple to enforce). They start handing out cards and penalty kicks for shenanigans during corner kicks caught on VAR, it would be ugly for a bit, but then the players would adjust and the game would be better for it.

  17. frank schoon, July 16, 2019 at 7:03 a.m.

    Kent, “ handing out cards and penalty kicks caught on VAR”. I hope your not implying that if not caught on VAR, the refs call for a penalty is nullified, because the VAR can not catch everything when things happen in crowds like on corner kicks.

  18. beautiful game replied, July 16, 2019 at 2:58 p.m.

    "...VAR can not catch everything when things happen in crowds like corner kicks." Frank, that statement has no merit. If VAR is inconclusive, nothing happens. VAR reviews can be made post-game and if cautionable offenses are identified, the player should either receive a rules caution or be fined, or both.

  19. frank schoon replied, July 16, 2019 at 6:09 p.m.

    BG, Who is reffing the game, VAR or the ref? You mean to tell me if the ref calls a foul but the VAR couldn't catch it then the call is nullified. I thought the VAR was suppose to aid the ref not control the ref....

  20. Kent James replied, July 16, 2019 at 11:43 p.m.

    Frank, I don't think anyone is suggesting that if, for some reason, a foul is seen by the ref but missed by VAR that VAR will overrule the ref.  If the ref calls a foul, and the VAR sees that it is clearly not a foul (the player dove, e.g.), then VAR can be used to change the call (which means in this hypothetical case, getting it right).  Right now, I think the ref still has the final word (though I may be wrong on that, and as I said earlier, giving VAR the final word could speed the process up, which everyone wants).  I think it needs to be tried each way and see what works better.  And BG is absolutely right (and I thought you would also agree) that shenanigans in the box caught by VAR but missed by the ref could be punished retroatively (fines, missed games, etc.).  Not ideal, but better than letting it go.  And that should reduce the crap that goes on in the box during corner kicks (which you rightfully disparaged).  And hopefully, once players realize whatever they do will be caught, they'll cut it out.

  21. frank schoon, July 17, 2019 at 6:54 a.m.

    Kent, so the player gets punished later after the game since the VAR caught him,but what happens if what the player did should have been called a penalty for the other team. How does that work out ...

  22. frank schoon replied, July 17, 2019 at 6:59 a.m.

    Kent, on those corners kicks, you don’t need a VAR for these fouls are so obvious and abundant and out in the open of which many are. What you need are refs with guts and fortitude to call these obvious fouls and infractions,and I have yet to see that happen and I blame the refs for allowing it to become such a cesspool

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, July 17, 2019 at 8:14 p.m.

    It isn't always that simple Frank. Fouls don't happen until the ball is kicked. Before that the choice is delay the restart or not and issue cards or not.

  24. Kent James replied, July 24, 2019 at 6:26 p.m.

    If VAR catches the player in real time (as it is designed to do), the referee is alerted and appropriate action taken (PK, e.g.).  That is obvioiusly the most effective way to use VAR.  If too many people criticize VAR as being too slow to be used in a live game, then punishing people retroaactively is better than nothing (though not ideal).  If the punishment is severe enough, one hopes that would deter the behavior.

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