TV commentators' over-the-top VAR criticism has far-reaching impact on ref bashing

NBC’s wonderful Premier League studio crew of Rebecca Lowe, Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle was outraged.

Such a brilliant goal by Alexis Mac Allister! And it was disallowed by VAR! What a systemic failure! Can the officials in the next game do better?

There’s just one problem.

The call in question was wholly justified.

NBC posted the video and the discussion thereafter:

Off a Brighton & Hove Albion free kick, Enock Mwepu is in an offside position (pedantic point here: “being in an offside position” and “offside” are not the same thing) and attempts a wild bicycle kick. James Justin, part of a Leicester defense that had an atrocious game, clearly flinches as he attempts to clear the ball. It falls to Mac Allister, whose strike is indeed a screamer.

But nowhere in the "Laws of the Games" does it say, “... but don’t call it if someone makes a fantastic play immediately afterward.”

If the AR had raised his flag and the whistle had blown, the TV crew might have taken a look at the replay and shrugged.

If Mac Allister’s shot had been deflected, then even if Brighton had gone on to put the ball in the net for a goal that would be gritty rather than pretty, the VAR review wouldn’t have caused such a vociferous complaint.

The NBC crew isn’t alone in its “awww, please let it stand!” view. But former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher, while agreeing it’s a shame to call back such a fantastic strike, patiently explained to Sky Sports why it was the right call and why it took so long to sort it all out.

Video Review in England has been controversial, hence the hiring of Howard Webb, who oversaw a comparably better rollout in the USA. It will take some time for Webb’s influence to take root, as shown by recent controversies that have made the English officiating organization reflect.

At several levels, we’ve seen replays accorded a degree of precision that doesn’t exist — particularly on offside calls, in which VAR is presented with a bunch of lines that supposedly align with the exact millisecond in which the ball is played forward. A bit of scrutiny over the process isn’t a bad thing.

(In tennis, the robot overlords are generally less controversial — a ball either makes contact with a line or it doesn’t. But during Serena Williams’ brief but breathtaking run at the U.S. Open, fans viewing the replay of a close shot at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the stadium screen couldn’t quite see that the tiny shadow showing a call was correct, and they started to boo, only to stop when Serena sportingly waved her hand and a finger to silence them.)

But the NBC discussion adds to an unfortunate tendency that has only grown in the media in recent years:

It’s never the player’s fault.

On the Mac Allister strike, how many commentators blamed Mwepu for drifting offside and then taking a wild swing at the ball? For U.S. teams, it must be the coach, U.S. Soccer’s board and staff, or the referee.

Which leads to a fascinating development in the NWSL.

Complaints about the standard of officiating in the NWSL are nothing new — and, in fairness, I’ve made them myself. The league could use a bit of investment in Video Review. Those complaints, though, have veered into absurdity, most egregiously when commentator Kaylyn Kyle exclaimed that her 3-year-old could’ve done a better job on a subjective handball call on which the referee may not have had the best angle.

PRO, the U.S. referee organization, has taken note.

Which is why Armando Villarreal, a veteran of men’s international games and big MLS games including MLS Cup 2021, was assigned to an NWSL game Sept. 4 between Gotham FC and the North Carolina Courage.

Villarreal was assigned before Gotham was unjustly denied a goal against Angel City FC — and, more puzzlingly, awarded a corner kick. PRO addressed that call and removed the officials from upcoming assignments, which should but probably won’t assuage some of the ignorant complaints that referees aren’t held accountable for their job performance. The timing of Villarreal’s assignment in this case, though, is coincidental.

Where his assignment could get interesting, though, is how he handles the U.S. national team players who are used to getting their way. One notable exception earlier this year was when Megan Rapinoe received a red card for dissent, but Rapinoe felt she was above the mandate to leave immediately and went over to shake hands and joke around with players who had not yet entered the game.

So did the media criticize Rapinoe for acting as if she was above the game?

Not exactly.

So good luck to Armando Villarreal. Personally, you couldn’t pay me enough to officiate an NWSL game.

Coda from NBC’s EPL coverage: In the Arsenal-Manchester United game, a goal was disallowed when VAR showed a clear foul in the buildup. At halftime, did the commentators cheer the officials for getting the call right? Nope. Mustoe griped that it wasn’t clear and obvious because the referee had a good look at the play before the VAR was consulted.

Mustoe’s right in the sense that the VAR sometimes intervenes on picayune subjective calls. But this really wasn’t one of them. If the referee missed it in real time, it’s because referees are human or sometimes don’t have the vantage point they’d like. I would’ve loved to have Video Review in my season debut over the weekend, and I was just reffing a game of U-10s who aren’t quite as fast or physical as EPL players. I’ve actually asked for the video of the game to see what I can do better.

Yes, we’re seeing some mistakes. And yes, we’re seeing accountability for those mistakes. But we’re also seeing commentators who want to make every call or non-call a controversy, and we’re seeing players who think referees are their indentured servants.

And that’s not going to make the game any better.

10 comments about "TV commentators' over-the-top VAR criticism has far-reaching impact on ref bashing".
  1. R2 Dad, September 7, 2022 at 1:23 a.m.

    Good column and I largely agree. However, it doesn't help make your case referencing the Rapinoe Reign/Angel City match as that ref had an absolute nightmare of an outing. Any ref dishing out that many yellows has missed the plot. She missed all the signs the match was spooling up early and just "let them play". There was a previous column on this match and I think some of us commented on it then. Ref absolutely in over her head that day.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, September 7, 2022 at 10:20 a.m.

    The Ref That Day was "CONSISTENT"... Consistently BAD... But, as a Player or Coach... You have to adjust and Deal with it... Not be Petty, Petulant and Provacative and ENTITLED.!!!

  3. Dan Popp, September 11, 2022 at 6:48 p.m.

    I watched the FC Dallas vs. LAFC match last night at Toyota Stadium. 

    I really felt for center referee Jon Freemon, as the match started with a red card decision (after VAR review) for LAFC for a foul in an "obvious" goal scoring opportunity.

    It was what followed that was so shameful.  There was another 70-80 minutes of both sides surrounding and shouting at Freemon after every single call.  I mean EVERY call.

    As an advocate for youth soccer and youth soccer referees, I ask you: What will the MLS do about the atrocious behavior toward referees from professional players on the field? How do we expect young referees to continue to develop when, even at the highest level of play in the country,  referees are SWARMED by players on every decision. What horrible examples our professional athletes are setting for our kids! 

    Do better MLS and professional athletes!

    As a side note: The BEST part of the evening (and with just desserts!) is when Dallas' Jesus Ferreira scored off a quickly taken set piece after LAFC was caught napping while several LAFC defenders were surrounding and complaining to the ref about the foul called...

  4. Carlos Parada, September 11, 2022 at 7:23 p.m.

    VAR needs to be altered. too many interferences: Aresnal/ Man United game was not a foul and referee was 15m staring at the play the entire time. In the flow of that game prior to this moment, similar and harder challenges were not called fouls. 

    I have had it with nano-lines, elbows or knees being cause for an offside call. That's stupid and against the spirit of the game. All fans wanted from video technology was weather the ball went in or not- goal line technology. Humans make mistakes, whether they are referees, players or coaches and that used to be considered part of the game.

    NWSL referees are the worst I have ever seen (most are worse than HS referees who never leave the center circle). Do think think clumsy play, slips etc don't give the offending team an advantage when an attacker is taken down. That's a foul ! Pulling some one down by shirt or by pony-tale is violent conduct. period. what if that attacker has a career ending injury and you screamed "play on", referee?

    When will they learn what an "advantage" actually is? maintaining possession is not an advantage in every case. Did the team continue attacking at the same speed, same numerical advantage or better. Or did they have to pass it square or back? Did the number 9 have the ball and now a lesser player has the ball who can't get a shot off against the opposition.

    Not enough referees have played the game. I know having played since childhood, that having that experience makes me a better referee, which I also stared doing decades ago as a high schooler earning gas money after my game was over.

  5. Beau Dure replied, September 12, 2022 at 6:03 p.m.

    I don't know that I buy the argument that too many referees haven't played. At the very least, today's young refs have played (and continue to play). 

    If the argument is that more elite players (particularly former pros) need to take up the whistle, I'd absolutely agree!

  6. Scott Larson replied, December 28, 2022 at 4:04 p.m.

    While I agree that the spirit of the offsides law was to so nanometer picky, and included text (paraphasing) if unsure about being offside, the don't whistle.  I think fan's do want clear offsides called back.  Its the thought that english VAR system is assumed to have nano precision that needs to be addressed.  Likely with thicker lines to communicate the inadequacies of the video system precision.

    The 2022 WC's approach to video display of VAR decision was also not satisfactory for me as a fan, because anybody can draw a computer graphic to defend his position.  Its not evidence in my mind, and I did want it as a fan.

  7. Kenneth Elliott, September 11, 2022 at 8:12 p.m.

    No! No, no, no, no, no. VAR is ruining the game, not the commentators. Instant Replay ruined the NFL and VAR has ruined professional soccer. VAR disallows way too many goals for what could never truly be of sides. If neither a human linesman can split milliseconds, nor could either a defender or attacker, then an improvable check of impossible camera angles by humans should not be taken into consideration. Ban it. Abolish it. Burn it down! 

  8. Wooden Ships replied, September 11, 2022 at 9:02 p.m.

    What Kenneth said.

  9. Paul Cox, September 12, 2022 at 12:16 a.m.

    The thing that kills me about these pundits is that THEY ARE THE REASON WE HAVE VAR IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    Seriously. As HD rolled in, combined with slo-mo video and a ton of camera angles, we got more and more outrage from pundits as they reviewed calls and told us how shite the referees were... and so people said "gosh, we have these replays, let's use them!"

    So in comes VAR, to help out the referee who gets one look at full speed in real time from a single angle. Great.

    Except now the same pundits bemoan when VAR is used, correctly, to get a tricky and fast offside offense properly spotted.

    Can't win for losing, only their continual criticism of referees has made the job even more difficult than it used to be.

  10. Bob Ashpole, September 12, 2022 at 1:44 a.m.

    Two things I expect from officials. 1. Keep players safe. 2. Be consistent.

    Sometimes they are perfect, but that is not expected or necessary. 

    I don't know why some people can't accept that bad calls are part of the game. Officials can't call what they don't see. Human error will always be present to some degree.  

    From my experience about 95% of the complaints about calls stems from people not knowing the Laws. 

    I wonder if the spread of sports betting has caused fans to lose all sense of proportion about the calls.

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