VAR-fetched judgments are not making for a fairer, better game

We can list all the pros and cons of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) until the beer taps have been turned off and the jukebox disconnected at the wall, but we can be certain of one thing: no one can claim for sure that the VAR has made soccer a better game, or a more fair one. In fact, two incidents in the Women's World Cup round of 16 game between England and Nigeria present a strong case against. The VAR is not just unnecessarily complicating soccer, it's actively hindering justice.

In the 31st minute, referee Melissa Borjas called a penalty kick for England when Nigeria's midfielder Rasheedat Ajibade pushed over Rachel Daly as she was poised to jump for a header from an incoming free-kick. It's the kind of sneaky offense that happens at every corner and free kick in the professional game, and it mostly goes unpunished. Borjas, though, saw Ajibade's right hand push on Daly's shoulder at a key moment, and correctly blew her whistle. While Daly may have taken a slightly dramatic tumble, it was a sound call. Courageous, even.

The Nigerians protested, as a matter of course — with VAR, players know that they can place doubt in the minds of the officials (on field or off), and that a delay to the re-start will give the VAR time for a review.

Despite the clear and obvious lack of a clear and obvious error in this case, VAR Armando Villarreal called Borjas over for a second look. You always know what will happen then, as on-field referees seem serially afraid to contradict their peers in the video capsule. Borjas rescinded her call on the grounds that there was "no foul." Even though the foul was there for all to see.

You'll be familiar with the next argument. "It wasn't enough for a penalty." And so it's worth reiterating: a foul in the penalty area should be treated in the same way as a foul elsewhere on the field. If it's a foul, it's a foul. There is nothing, not a single word, in soccer's rules that state a foul in the penalty area has to be 'foul enough' for a penalty kick. There never will be. Who would dare to try and define this boundary between a foul that's insufficiently hard for a penalty, and a foul that is? (This criterion never applies for handball offenses, strangely enough — here the VAR can impose a fine for jay-walking, even though there may not be a car within five miles.)

So, one decision botched and bottled. Now we move into the third minute of overtime, with the score still at 0-0. In England's penalty area, Nigeria's Michelle Alozie is rising to head a long ball from the right hand side of the field when England's Lucy Bronze charges her from the side and sends her flying. Borjas is perfectly positioned to see the offense, but waves play on, dismissing Nigerian appeals for a penalty.

The slow motion replay shows a clear, indisputable offense, but the VAR review never comes. Perhaps the FIFA contract stipulates that VARs don't have to work overtime. Perhaps the foul was evaluated as 'shoulder-to-shoulder,' in which case both Villarreal and Borjas should never officiate another game at this level. There is simply no explanation for not calling this foul as a penalty. It surely even crosses our mythical boundary about being 'enough.'

Unless we think back to the withdrawn penalty call in the first half. The officials had painted themselves into a corner. How could they say that Ajibade's clear push in the back of Daly was not a penalty, but then maintain that Bronze's charging of Alozie was? England would have had the right to complain about the inequity of justice. Yet if the VAR had not interfered in the first incident, it could certainly have pointed to the blatant foul in the second.

That's the consequence of VAR. Two wrong decisions apparently make for a right one, which you can argue has been happening in games for years, long before VAR. But not quite so explicitly as here. And not through a mechanism which, we were told upon its introduction, would bring clarity and correctness to soccer so that games at the highest level were no longer subject to blatant error.

Refereeing decisions were never perfect, and never will be. But I preferred the imperfection based on a snap judgment, and then we quickly moved on. It was explicable, at least — human error is very much part of the players' game, and of the officials' too.

Now the imperfection we have is baffling, incoherent and borderline ridiculous. We should keep goal-line technology, but leave all other decisions to the officials on the field. Micro-refereeing has not just failed, it's becoming a blight on the game that brings us nothing but stalled celebrations, fractious and lengthy delays, and a significant number of calls more erroneous and unjust than ever before.

18 comments about "VAR-fetched judgments are not making for a fairer, better game".
  1. R2 Dad, August 9, 2023 at 10:36 p.m.

    This column has been a long time coming. FIFA gives us VAR, but then the implementation is left to the various leagues. Of course application is going to be uneven and unfair. "Clear and Obvious" is neither, with a multitude of offenses both "not enough" and "clearly enough" as Ian has documented. FIFA should accept the first rule as "Do No Harm", and remember what VAR has promised has fallen short of what has been delivered. It's been, what, 5 years since VAR was introduced? Upgrade and homoginize the implementation or dump it.

  2. Kent James, August 9, 2023 at 11:37 p.m.

    While I agree that it would be good to get a consistent procedure for using the VAR, I think we're still trying to figure out what works best, so having different leagues use it differently is worthwhile (at least for a while) to provide alternatives.  

    As for this specific game, while I agree that when you can only use it when there is potentially a "clear and obvious error", there is a lot of pressure to agree that there was an error (it's essentially saying the ref in the booth thinks you got it wrong).  So it might be better if VAR would just be used at the referee's discretion when they want to see another angle.  Not sure how to handle it, but it's worth working through it.

    As for this specific example, I only saw the highlights but the rescinded penalty to me is not obviously wrong.  It looked like the English player stopped short, the Nigerian player bumped into her, and she went down.  If the English player was stopping to jump up to head (certainly possible) and she was in the right spot to do that, probably should be a PK (though that sort of thing happens all the time).  I did not see the Nigerian shove her purposely to knock her off line (she did have her hand on her shoulder, and may have put some pressure on her to keep her from jumping high, but making your opponent jump through you to get the ball is good positioning).  It certainly could have been the English player stopped short (where had she jumped, she would not have gotten the ball), felt the contact, and threw herself to the ground looking for a call.  I'd have to see a different angle to tell, but if that's what the ref saw, I could see that.

    As for fouls in the box, Ian, as a ref you know better than to say any foul you call at midfield you call in the box.  There is always a continuum, from no foul to maybe a foul to definitely a foul.  On each end, things are clear (no foul, clear foul) and those you call the same, inside the box or no.  But the grey areas you might call outside the box for things like game control, but you wouldn't call in the box because they're not clear fouls.  If you're not sure in the box, you don't call it.  It's like a criminal case v. a civil case.  The criminal case (leading to a PK) requires beyond a reasonable doubt certainty.  The rest of the field just requires a prepoderance of the evidence to get to guilty. 

    I don't think the 2nd incident was on the highlights.  You didn't mention the red card, which seems like a pretty good case for VAR.  James pretty clearly stepped on the Nigerian purposefully and deserved to be sent off (David Beckham level of stupidity on that one...)

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, August 10, 2023 at 7:33 a.m.

    Either an action is a foul or it isn't. During my career I prosecuted many thousands of people, but I never prosecuted someone for something that was not a clear "foul". And making charging decisions is a lot more complicated and serious than foul recognition in a soccer match. Calling unclear fouls for "match control"? You will never get sympathy from me about that view.   

  4. R2 Dad replied, August 10, 2023 at 10:10 a.m.

    Bob, do you really think referees call non-fouls for that purpose? My go-to calls for match control were Persistent Infringement (all fouls, but clearly targeting one player), Not Respecting 10 yards on re-starts (players caught standing in front of the ball to allow defenders to reset their formation/shape then pitching a fit when carded), and Dissent (but never for things along the lines of "Ref, he's touching me!"). I never carded for Diving (a non-call always did the trick, followed up with a little banter). All referees were instructed that if you were unsure about a call, don't blow the whistle--you can't unblow it. I think this value is paramount for all referees and was demonstrated  in a video clip of a ref falling to his knees in anguish after he realized he shouldn't have blown for a foul when there was clear Advantage to the attackers in front of the 18.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, August 10, 2023 at 1:55 p.m.

    Read his post. That is what I was responding to. In my experience of over 800 organized adult matches, licensed referees do not. Not even Grade 8s. 

  6. Kent James replied, August 12, 2023 at 12:01 p.m.

    Bob, so you think every push is called? Every shirt tug? Those are illegal actions, and by the book, should be called.  But the push has to be hard enough, or strategic enough to make a difference to call a foul.  Those are grey areas.  Maybe you call advantage, maybe something is trifling.  Maybe a player embellishes contact, trying to make normal contact look like a foul. Just because a player embellishes it doesn't mean it wasn't a foul (but it certainly makes you wonder).


    As for licensed referees calling fouls the same in the box, are you seriously going to tell me that referees call offensive players in the box at the same level they call fouls against defenders in the box, even at the professional level?  Way too often refs call forwards for the slightest push and let defenders get away with almost murder.  I wish they would be more consistent in that area, but to make it seem like good referees don't differentiate is just not accurate.

    If you've reffed 800 matches, you should know that reffing is not black and white.  In the law, I think they call it prosecutorial discretion.  Everything that is illegal is not prosecuted.  While I think referees too often shy away from calling fouls in the box because they are in the box or because they happen too early in the game (so we may not be as far apart as you seem to think), and that's poor refereeing.  But since the penalty for a committing a foul in the box is so much more severe than outside, the foul should be clear.  Trust me, I am not advocating letting fouls in the box go because they are in the box, but if there is doubt (and there will always be some calls that create doubt), the benefit of the doubt goes to the defender, not 50/50.  

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, August 12, 2023 at 2:46 p.m.

    Kent, I thought you were familiar with the LOTG. That was a dumb question to ask.

  8. Bob Ashpole, August 10, 2023 at 7:18 a.m.

    Not to mention that FIFA officials illegally booted the USWNT out of the competition by violating the competition rules prohibiting VAR review of goal line technology determinations. They used VAR contrary to the competiton rules and said that the US keeper failed to make a save contrary to the goal line techology determination.

    And why did the US coach and USSF not protest?

    Certainly FIFA's illegal decision impacted a lot of gambling wagers worldwide.

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, August 10, 2023 at 7:57 p.m.

    Bob, you are CORRECT.!!!
    FIFA even has Videos on the Process to be Used.
    All 4 Officials were to have the Goal Buzzer watches.
    THE GENERAL MANAGER, DIRECTOR OF SPORT( Oh, Betty Crocker was STILL in the USA.!!!)
    The Coach, Assistant Coach, Team Administrator should have ALL BEEN FILING A PROTEST.!!!
    "Goal Watches" are Supposed to GO OFF IN 1 SECOND; ALERTING THE 4 REFS ... SIMULTANEOUSLY.!!!
    AND ON TOP OF THAT, FUFA ALLOWS FOR A 15 MILLIMETER "Tolerance" in the Range of Discrepancy.!!!

  10. Santiago 1314 replied, August 11, 2023 at 6:22 a.m.

    From the FIFA Website; 
    "How does it work?
    The technology must provide a clearly indicate whether the ball has fully crossed the line. This information will serve to assist the referee in taking their final decision. The information is transmitted within one second which ensures an immediate response from the referee. Only the match officials are receive the signal on their watches. The system uses 14 high-speed cameras mounted on the catwalk of the stadium/under the roof. The data from the cameras is used to create a 3D animation to visualise the decision to the fans on TV and on the giant screen inside the stadium."
    *** SO again I ask; Has anyone asked FIFA, THE 4 REFS; DID YOUR WATCH "GO OFF".!?!?!?
    Man oh Man, Did Someone in USSF Mess Up... This should have Been the IMMEDIATE QUESTION FOR THE REFS.!!!

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, August 12, 2023 at 12:39 a.m.

    A criminal investigator would call this an indicator of fraud. It deserves investigation. I also saw some indicators in how cards were handled. People should be aware of how bent officials in Europe used soft yellows to manipulate subsequent matchs on behalf of the sports gambling industry.

  12. John Soares, August 10, 2023 at 10 a.m.

    After all the pro/con arguments.... that will never end.
    We're back to square one.
    VAR has not improved the game, made the game more enjoyable or more fair.
    If it doesn't meet any of the above. Why have it?

  13. Donald Lee, August 10, 2023 at 11:14 a.m.

    The penalty was not a courageous decision. It was an England player conning the referee. VAR correctly reversed the decision as it should have.  The England player created the contact then flopped.  That is how I saw it when it happened and on replay. 

    VAR is definitely making the games better with better decisions.  Not all the time, it doesn't get things perfect.  But the entire premise of this article is just plain crazy.  Sort of nonsense bloviating we see from the English "experts." 

  14. Rod Spears replied, August 10, 2023 at 12:12 p.m.

    Totally agree with Donald. In this case the "no penalty" decision was a good one. However, I am sure there are many who will disagree with me. If I am not mistaken, the VAR decisions are still made by human judgement. It just appears the decisions include the opinions of more officals who have the opportunity to watch an incident several times from different angles. We may never be able to remove human judgement from this process but VAR is better choice at this point in time as compared to leaving the decision to just one official who only sees the incident one time. The stakes are too high at the professional level for the decision to be made by one person, when we have technology available to review the decision.  

  15. James Madison, August 10, 2023 at 3:03 p.m.

    Is it VAR or the officials, both onfield and VAR?  It seems to be both in the case of WWCup.  IMHO, the pressure to have only female officials has resulted in a thin roster and, as a result, some questionable appointments.  On the advice of VAR, England's James was sent off for walkng on the back of jer Nigerian opponent.  Appaently in the absence of VAR advice, a Sweden player who kicked Sophie Smith quarely in the back after bringing her down was not even cautioned.  I have been tempted to keep count of other inconsistencies, particularly in the later stages of closely compeititive matches, but the matches themselves have been too entertaining to be diverted to referee scorekeeping.

  16. R2 Dad replied, August 12, 2023 at 2:55 a.m.

    James I think you are correct, the inconsistencies are a big problem. Define the standard and stick to it.

  17. Doug Broadie, August 10, 2023 at 3:34 p.m.

    I think VAR would be good if it called all fouls in the box on a corner, not just "hand balls" AKA as handling the ball.  It ain't gonna happen. 
    Do you really think that the pk kick would have been given as a goal in the US game.  Doubt it.
    VAR needs to go away and let the game flow.  It's a human game, let the bad refs at the profession level call it.  (If they only followed the laws of the game.)
    My OLD hack is get rid of the "hand ball" and go back to the old "handling the ball" law.
    And as for offsides, if they are going by milimeters, then they should change that law to "if they are even with the last player, they are onsides".  We need the goals in the game.

  18. Kevin Leahy, August 13, 2023 at 11:32 a.m.

    VAR is trying to make a perfect world and that's not possible. I agree let's, use goal line technology and let humans take care of the rest. If a player has an open goal and misses, they do not get a do over. 

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