The Road to Robo-ref: Tales from VAR-off places

The anomaly that is VAR continues to ruffle feathers. This really should not be. The vast majority of soccer people know that VAR, or something similar was inevitable in soccer.

It had become vitally necessary because of advances in technology. Replays - good replays, usually from more than one angle - were now available immediately to almost the whole world. Everyone could now see, for certain, when a referee had made a bad call. Everyone, that is, except the ref himself.

So the game proceeded even though we all knew that the lone goal on the scoreboard was a lie, it should never have been allowed, or we knew that the big zero up there should be replaced by a figure 1.

Something had to be done. There are very few soccer people who unreservedly condemn VAR, who believe it serves no useful purpose. I believe the idea of VAR is as widely accepted -- welcomed, even -- as anything can be in this contentious sport.

To demand that the results of games be accurate measures of what has happened in the field is, after all, hardly a radical idea. It’s been around, I would guess, as long as the game itself -- for over 150 years. The difference now is that technology can instantly -- and with scientific accuracy it seems -- correct any wrong decisions.

Not to use that technology, to insist that the poor referee must not even be aware of his mistakes when everyone else is, well, that has to be a non-starter. So the VAR era opened to widespread acceptance. Even better, all sorts of guarantees were spelled out that the technology would only be used in certain limited situations -- mostly to decide whether a goal had been legitimately scored or not.

That narrow call for VAR action was further shriveled by the assurance that the VAR guys would only be heard from in cases where there had been a “clear and obvious” refereeing error.

Those words -- “clear and obvious” -- have bounced back to haunt the VAR proponents. For the moment, let’s just say that, at the time, they provided hefty relief for those -- yes, there were such people -- who feared that VAR would be called into action to review all sorts of non-crucial referee calls. That the game would, in effect, be re-refereed, replayed. Or, if you prefer, the game would be reduced to a prolonged series of ridiculous VAR interventions.

The complaints started almost at once. No one liked the delay as the VAR guys studied the replays. The FIFA rulebook says there must be the VAR guy himself plus “at least one” assistant -- an AVAR. Well now, we know that just one assistant is not the full story, because we’ve all seen plenty of photos in which a VAR booth features multiple TV screens with people watching them. I have here a photo of a “FIFA VAR booth” which shows six people (there may be more beyond the eye of the camera).

I shall assume that a top league, like the English Premier League, employs at least two AVARs. Which leaves plenty of latitude for discussions, disagreements, and arguments. All time-consuming. That must be what happens. Because some of the delays seem endless. Obviously, they’re not, not even close. But we’re not used to delays in soccer, and even 30 seconds-worth of players simply standing around twiddling their thumbs seems like an age.

What happened to the “clear and obvious error” requirement? Nothing that straightforward should require a long delay to come up with a decision.

Maybe the VARs are getting better (i.e. quicker) with their decision-making. I haven’t noticed it. Anyway, this problem of delays merges with another objection. This one is directly caused by the technology itself. I refer to these millimetric offside calls.

I must reveal that I am one of those who feel that VAR has grown too big for its boots, VAR too big in fact. Did anyone envision that the VAR and his minions would be intently scouring their monitors looking for the exact position of a player’s big toe, or his nose? But that’s what is happening.

VAR nullifies a goal by Chelsea's Timo Werner (No. 11 at the far end of the center circle).

My feeling is that such scrutiny is so obviously stupid, so downright fatuous, that I cannot understand why we put up with it. The final decision, adorned with mathematic (or is it geometric?) certainty is a joke. The computer sees something that no human eye can detect and a game is won or lost on a decision made by technology. You feel happy with that?

I hate it. But I have worked out a solution to this pseudo-scientific hogwash. We’re talking abut incidents when no offside call was made and the VAR suspects that was an error. The incident should be reviewed at once by him and however many AVARs he has. Viewed at normal speed. Just once. The viewers should then give their opinion - offside or not? If they can’t decide - if it’s “too close to call” - then they should shut up and allow the referee’s decision to stand.

An essential aspect of this approach would be that where there is doubt, the benefit of that doubt would go to the attacker - and not, as is the standard refereeing practice, to the defender.

But before VAR even gets involved, FIFA (a forlorn thought here, but even the hopeless IFAB might have something intelligent to add) can make a huge difference -- by defining offside with greater clarity and in such a way that it can be more easily detected.

Some 30 years back there was talk of rewriting the offside rule, calling for daylight to be seen between the defender and attacker before the flag was raised. A good idea, I thought. Being a good idea, it suffered the usual fate of such ideas in soccer. It got nowhere.

Very well, I’ll propose a different modification, a sort of first step to daylight. My suggestion is that the key part of the body in offside calls be the foot, and only the foot. The referee and the ARs can forget about the knee and the upper body, they must look at the players’ feet. And they must see all of the foot over the imaginary offside line. That still leaves room for pernickety millimetric calls - but at least now we can see, as can the referee, what we’re dealing with.

I’m hoping that the stark exposure of their trivial opinionizing would bring home to VARs just how idiotic they’re being ... denying a good goal, maybe a great goal, and advancing the skin of a player’s nose as justification?

Bah, humbug. If the referee can’t see it, if the VAR gang can’t see it without a microscopic inspection, then let the original - human - call stand. Anyway, a big toe offside? Can that really qualify as “gaining an advantage” or “interfering with play or an opponent” which are among the rule book criteria for making an offside call? A big toe or a nose? Oh, come on guys.

The process I’m suggesting allows human eyes, referee eyes, to make the call. Which is just fine with me. One of the original fears about VAR -- ostensibly banished by denials from its proponents -- was that it would inevitably and insidiously take over more and more of the decision-making.

That is what we see here. But it is not the computer that is pushing itself forward, it is the operators, the VAR people, who cannot resist the chance to show off just how amazing the technology can be.

There is also the matter of co-ordinating the toe or nose position with the exact moment (a split second you can be sure, again something only the VAR instruments can measure) when a teammate touches the ball. Note that: no movement of the ball is necessary, just contact. Decidedly difficult to judge, even with VAR wizardry, I’d say.

So we have VAR presenting us with irritating delays, and then delivering utterly surreal offside verdicts.

There are a couple more points that need to be examined. The first I have mentioned before: the inevitably negative nature of the majority of the VAR decisions. The commonest wording that comes up on the big stadium screens is NO GOAL -- shown when a genuine goal has apparently been scored, but then nixed by VAR.

Do the VAR people realize how damaging that “just say No” attitude is to their own image? Of course, there is always a group of people -- the fans of the defending team -- who love the negative call. A minority of course, which quickly shifts position when one of its own goals get canceled.

I would say that many -- probably a majority of -- soccer games these days get decided by one goal. The fact is that soccer, over the past decades, has become one of the lowest-scoring sports on the calendar.

Alas, we must pause for a statistical interlude. Key stat: average goals-per-game in World Cup 1950: 4.00. In World Cup 2018: 2.6. Nearly one and a half goals per game have vanished.

The fewer goals per game, the greater the value of each individual goal. Which surely adds to the pressure on the referee. To award a penalty kick or to deny a goal -- just one goal! -- is likely to decide the game. (So it’s worth pondering that a game that features four goals cannot be won by a single goal).

There is no counter-wording that proclaims GOAL on the jumbo screens. VAR has total power to cancel goals, but it cannot create them. Consider the two versions of a botched offside call. Case 1: A goal has been scored, but VAR has detected offside in the buildup -- the goal is nixed. Case 2: a promising attacking move has been halted by an offside call. VAR decides there was no offside ... but it cannot somehow re-create the move and ensure that it results in a goal. The chance has gone.

There does appear to be some common sense at work here, with a tendency to allow such plays to continue until a goal is scored, or not -- and only then to raise the offside flag. VAR can then either confirm the goal or send the depressing NO GOAL sign up to the scoreboard.

The closest VAR can come to creating a goal is to award a penalty kick (an opportunity that does not arise on offside calls).

It would be quite possible for the sport to let us know what is going on. Why not have the referee or the AR throw a “flag” -- exactly as in football -- the moment a possible, but not called, offside infringement is suspected? Such an early-warning system would at least temper fan celebrations until VAR has made its decision. That is something that, by softening the disappointment of a disallowed goal, would work in VAR’s favor. So why has it not been introduced?

The answer to that one is part of VAR’s overall problem. Because soccer referees have a long history of refusing to openly identify their calls. Being required to do something that would actually allow everyone to know what is happening, that really seems to upset them. Each of the American pro sports has developed a very useful set of signals for its officials to use -- specifically designed to keep everyone informed.

Soccer referees have never been as helpful. After 150 years they have only a small set of the most primitive signals. They still prefer to make their decisions in secret.

My second point here is more nebulous but, it seems to me, of great importance. VAR is already getting itself involved in areas where it is not needed. The more it is used, the more it eats away at the importance of the referee and his on-field crew. A tricky area, this. There are many - I am one of them -- who would say that reducing the referee’s burden is an excellent idea.

I have to believe that a soccer referee has a more difficult and a more exhausting task than any other sports official. Keeping up with 22 players cavorting athletically on an area of at least 4,000 square yards -- and all the while making finely judged decisions -- is no picnic.

But it is something that soccer referees have always managed to do. Giving them less to do -- handing over some of the more routine activities (like timekeeping) to assistants, or to a computer, makes sense. But the experience with VAR reveals the danger: that the machine will take over not just routine matters, but also areas where judgement is needed.

Are we sure that’s what we want? Once the computer has been allowed to use its artificial intelligence to make, or crucially affect, referee calls, the road to robo-ref has been opened. Not least because there will always be scientists working, as scientists do, to perfect their inventions. At the practical level a computer that can unfailingly spot offside infringements would be hard to resist.

I do not believe that a game controlled by robots is what anyone wants. But the first steps in that direction have now been made as it has been accepted that soccer cannot rely on human referees to make accurate offside calls, and that computers making slide-rule measurements should now be used.

I have outlined above a way in which the human eye can reclaim that particular area of decision-making. I consider that VAR has already over-stepped its area of competence. It should be reined back as quickly as possible.

However firm may be the logic that computers have a role to play in refereeing, it is quite clear that the logic leaves plenty of soccer people with a feeling that something is not right.

Just a few days ago came a familiar cri de coeur from Southampton’s Austrian coach Ralph Hasenhuettl: “VAR is destroying the game!” As far as I can make out, Hasenhuttl was objecting to a penalty given by VAR against Southampton.

Just another miffed coach then? Possibly. Hasenhuettl tells us about VAR -- “I am normally a big fan ...” But like so many others, he feels that something is going wrong. He is specific about one thing: he does not like the fact that the VAR -- who confirmed the penalty decision -- was not at the Southampton stadium, but rather in Stockley Park, a western suburb of London, some 70 miles away.

Over 100 years ago, in 1907, one William Pickford wrote a long essay on refereeing. He took a look into the future, and described a game where the referee simply hovered over the field in an “air motor.” When a player was to be ejected, a “long snaky tentacle shot out” from the referee’s vehicle, snatched up the player, transferred him to another air-motor and whisked him off immediately to a distant tribunal to be fined.”

There, in 1907, was the idea of decisions being made miles from the stadium. No doubt Pickford invented it because he wanted something so different, so unlikely. We don’t - yet -- have snaky tentacles, but with VAR we have key decisions being made miles away from the stadium.

Hasenhuettl: “I haven’t spoken with the VAR because he isn’t at the stadium so I can’t ... This is the issue: the games aren’t decided in the stadium any more, the games are decided at Stockley Park. This is not so good for the game, I think.”

I think he’s absolutely right. What it comes down to is that the VAR and his assistant(s) are re-refereeing the game miles away from the event, the live action.

That definitely does not feel right. It is a huge invasion of the referee’s traditional place in the game, one of control. But whatever the distance, Big Brother VAR can now be looking over the referee’s shoulder all the time. He will look -- as has been done up to now -- to increase his role. The sport should be looking to limit it as strictly as it can.

As is always the case with soccer and its rules, the sport is off to a slow start. It managed to delay the introduction of VAR for years. Now that VAR is in place, the sport has notably failed to keep an eye on its expansionist attitude.

To correct that, the sport needs to do what it has not traditionally been good at. Keeping the sport -- by thoughtful changes in the rules -- up to date and maintaining a healthy balance between offense and defense.

What FIFA -- and IFAB -- should have done years ago was to note, and analyze, the drop in goalscoring, worked out the damage to the game, and come up with changes in the rules to counter it. Rule changes were made, but always too minor and years too late to be effective.

If VAR is allowed to continue its undermining of the referee’s role in soccer, then the arrival of robo-ref is a certainty. I’m not so sure about the snaky tentacles ...

9 comments about "The Road to Robo-ref: Tales from VAR-off places".
  1. frank schoon, March 6, 2021 at 10:16 a.m.

    Great article PG. I think if we decide that next season to dispense with all technology, i"m wiling to bet the fans would psychologically feel so much freer, like being released from bondage, for we don't have worry after a goal is scored to wait first for approval if a goal is justified....This is so unnatural to hold back first in order to wait until the control room deems it a goal...

    I much rather rely on the human factor that has been relied upon for over a hundred years with all its faults, then rely upon technology which is likewise not perfect, and likewise has created new problems as well resulting in a  long line of coaches in Europe not being happy with the VAR for it has not brought the much touted relief to the game...

    That means some calls will go your way for the team and in other situations it might not , right or wrong, but it all balances out in the long run;  but it will at least have been carried in a most natural manner.  It is like finding a $20 bill laying on the street ,thinking it's your lucky day and few years later unsuspectly some cash falls out of your pocket. This has happened to everybody. And that happens in soccer as well when it comes to certain ref calls, why bother with the imperfect technology for it won't solve the problem.

    If both are imperfect, then I prefer to rely strictly on the human experience. The only thing I think refereeing can improve upon is to ONLY allow refs who have played  professionally for at a minimum of 5years to ref. That would improve the quality of calls for they can read the game the flows , the nuances, and the fouls much ,much better. There are fouls called, that are not really fouls but appear more so to those types of refs who have little or any high level playing experience. It is like when my wife and I watch a game, and she sees two guys falling on the ground after contested ball, immediately she reacts to perhaps to a possible  injury. And I see it totally different, nothing there to see. Or, during a game , a player falls on the ground because of an injury and you can often tell what the injury will be  by just how the player reacts through the nuances...

  2. Wooden Ships replied, March 6, 2021 at 5:36 p.m.

    Frank, VAR proponents will continue to be dissatisfied as it's a false remedy. Geez, who the hell thought this was a good move? Wait, what am I thinking, we now have an entire generation or two of justice warriors. They will get it working seemlessly, lol. 

  3. frank schoon replied, March 6, 2021 at 8:03 p.m.


  4. Mike Lynch, March 6, 2021 at 1:06 p.m.

    Perhaps with VAR, we can let offsides evolve into the entire body is offsides for the call to be made. Easy to see on technology, allows for more goalscoring opportunities. etc. The idea that an arm or a toe or a heel in the last women's world cup is offsides is nuts. So go all in the other way and say the entire body is off to be offsides. Heck, maybe we wouldn't even need VAR now as this would much easier to call from the AR's perspective. 

  5. Peter Bechtold, March 6, 2021 at 9:36 p.m.

    Paul G., Thanks for your overly long article(I read all of it (:-).
    There are several points you make, but I have ONE reply: Every one of your problems happened/happens in UK. There the use of VAR is clearly inferior to how it is done in Italy, Mexico, Germany, Spain and was done at the '18 WC in Russia. You can see that easily by watching matches from other countries. FWIW, the guys at ESPNFC all agree with my assessment above.
    None of us can fathom why the instructions to EPL referees and Stockley Park vary so much from those in other countries, the most obvious being that foreign referees immediately go to the VAR monitor on the sideline.(And they typically explain their decision with a hand-signal, another one of your issues.) In the EPL they stand around, as if Stockley Park were a higher authority. Check out the time it takes in Serie A, Bundesliga,etc to arrive at a decision and compare it to the EPL. Problem solved, but not with Brexit.(:-)

  6. Ginger Peeler replied, March 8, 2021 at 8:11 p.m.

    Peter...just what I've been wondering about. The last World Cup's work with VAR went well and  was superior to anything I've seen since. 

    We don't seem to be the recipients of the extensive training in VAR for all countries working with it. And, with the expenses already caused by the Coronavirus, no leagues apparently want to spend the extra money required to train the experienced, VAR refs needed. Not quite as bad as the blind leading the blind, but definitely not at the level needed. Hopefully, when we've finally defeated this virus, we can standardize VAR training. 

  7. R2 Dad, March 7, 2021 at 12:36 a.m.

    Clear and Obvious is not explicit enough for the EPL, where implementation is inferior. But it seems to be enough in other countries within UEFA.

  8. beautiful game, March 7, 2021 at 9:18 a.m.

    Thank you Paul. The root of the off-side problem with VAR is IAFB's stubborness to rule off-sides when their is daylight between the offensive and defensive players. It's a simple solution to end this procrastinated LOTG issue. 

  9. Kent James, March 21, 2021 at 2:23 p.m.

    I generally like VAR, and would be happy to have a game called accurately, even if it was by a robot.  I guess I don't see the romance in human errors (though calling a game accurately would include ignoring trifling fouls, so it may take a while to develop AI that can "read the game" but I would think it's possible).  Relying on VAR to correct missed offside calls does allow the potential for more goals because of the tendency of ARs to give defenders the benefit of the doubt and err on the side of stopping close plays for offside.

    But I agree that millimeters should not determine offside.  I believe the term in math and science is a "degree of accuracy;" you don't want to pretend you can be more accurate than your equipment can measure. I think the way to do that is when using the line on the computer, instead of seeing if part of the attacker is breaking the line drawn even with the 2nd to last defender when the ball is kicked, part of the attacker's body must completely cross the line (not just break the plane on the attacker's side), and make the line thick enough to correspond to 3" in real life.  So for an attacker's foot to get him called offside, his toe would have to be 3" offiside, so it would be clear.  This seems doable to me.

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