Some of my older and “old school” referee friends think that the VAR system and concept is against the spirit of our game. They think that players, coaches, technical directors and club administrators (board members, presidents, owners) can make mistakes that cause the team to lose a game or a championship or get relegated, so would referees who have to make a judgment in a split second. Although there is some truth in that sentiment and I would have agreed with this stand 20 years ago, now I believe it is naive and does not reflect the realities of today’s game. And our game has changed radically.
The owners/presidents/boards of the club have the final say of employees. With the mistakes they make, either the value of the club goes down or they are not reelected next time, in the case of non-Anglo-Saxon type of clubs. So they pay for their mistakes.
In the case of employees, they also pay for their mistakes by being sacked or losing their starting position. All kinds of technology are in their disposal not to repeat similar mistakes.
In the case of referees, the clubs have no control over the mistakes they make. Their mistakes could be very costly in the professional game. The referees who make Critical Match Incidents mistakes that change the outcome of the game will usually be penalized by being sidelined for a week or two and those who keep on making such mistakes will be relegated. None of the points or rounds lost by those mistakes will be reimbursed to the clubs. Except for PGMOL (EPL) and PRO (MLS), in most leagues the clubs have very little or if any say in the management of the professional referees. This is the reality of today’s soccer and refereeing. We must minimize the costly Critical Match Incidents. But today at least we have technology to help us minimize if not completely eradicate such errors from the game.
Every other team sport that I know of uses video replay technology to minimize errors. So soccer/football could not resist the change and decided to use of video replays.
In the information age technology slowly started to infiltrate into our game. First we had the buzzers on the arms of the officials, then came the communication set. Actually instead of solving the 10 yard problem with technology, we used a spray which was very effective. Later on, although expensive Goal Line Technology was introduced and the last but not the least it was the introduction of the VAR technology.
For the skeptics of the VAR concept and technology, whether they like it or not; whether they find it not in the spirit of the game, I have bad news. The VAR concept and technology is here to stay with us.
As of right now, after four years from its introduction to the game –- which has changed dramatically in the last 20 years -– VAR has its problems, but we have to find ways of improving the application of the VAR concept and technology.
The best application of the VAR concept and technology was the 2018 World Cup. The UEFA Champions League and Europa League competitions of this year benefitted from the VAR concept and its application with very few problems. The problematic area is in the domestic leagues. As of today, 43 domestic leagues use the concept and technology.
The basic concept is ”minimal interference, maximum benefit” while identifying “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” that are considered Critical Match Incidents. This concept was brought in not to correct every erroneous incident but rather those that are scandalous like Diego Maradona’s and Thierry Henry’s handling offences before two very key goals. Since what is erroneous is also subjective. Although the concept of “clear and obvious error” might sound like an easy concept, it has proven to be just the opposite during some of the applications. Clearly there are different interpretations and applications of the VAR concept in different domestic leagues and the gap between them have to be reduced. That is the only way to reach a standard application across the globe.
In my opinion, there are four areas where we can develop the concept and the application:
It is clear that domestic leagues that started the VAR system earlier seem to be doing better than those that started later. Our own MLS is one such example. So time will cure some if not all of the problems of the VAR system. Leagues have to show some patience as their VAR systems oscillate between too much intervention and too little intervention depending on how they define “clear and obvious error."
2) HUMAN RESOURCES
Although technology is used to implement the VAR concept, at the end of the day, it is humans who sit behind TV screens to act as VAR or AVAR.
There are two issues with the human resource, one of which I mentioned in one of my earlier articles. In domestic competitions, there will be a wider gap between the experience level of the referee and the VAR. That experience and ranking (FIFA vs. National Referee) level difference might sometime cause some VARs to be either intimidated or being over-aggressive when using the system. Undoubtedly, this will affect the performance of the system.
The other is the qualities of what one would expect from a VAR. Many years ago, in the World Cup all three officials were referees. When referees ran the line as “linesman,” their performance was below par since they rarely ran lines in their domestic competitions. IFAB/FIFA realized that in early 1990’s and defined a new category of game officials namely “specialized linesman” which eventually led to the concept of Assistant Referees. What they also found out that the Assistant Referees and Referees had different superior cognitive, psychological and physiological qualities. The road to either being a Referee or Assistant Referee went into a fork in their mid-careers. Although it was possible to switch from one to the other, they rarely switched career paths. VAR also requires a different set of cognitive and personal trait skills than a referee on the field; once these qualities are crystalized, it will be a good idea to create a group of referees who will be VARs in games where the system is used and also officiate in lower leagues when they are not VARs. Just like the specialized linesman.
The new generation does not like to read long articles. So I will continue this article in two weeks with the other two areas where the VAR concept and application can be improved:
3) MODIFYING REVIEWABLE MATCH CHANGING DECISIONS/INCIDENTS.
4) IMPROVEMENTS IN THE PROCEDURES.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of 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 Georgetown, TX.