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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

So near, so VAR

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Another week in the Premier League, another VAR controversy. Or should I say controversies.

This past week the high profile incidents were Bruno Fernandes’ goal for Man Utd against Man City, and the award of a penalty for Fulham against Newcastle United.

VAR was introduced to try to eliminate as much as possible game changing decisions by referees and linesmen that camera footage showed to be wrong. Other sports – notably American football, cricket, rugby and tennis – have successfully used technology and an additional manpower for years.

Cricket has nailed it with the long established Third Umpire, albeit the nature of the sport, with technology that can remove any subjectivity (with a small amount of accepted tolerance courtesy of the use of ‘umpire’s call’) certainly lends itself to a more straightforward process that is now a crucial part of the game and indeed the fan experience.

Rugby’s Third Match Official (TMO) has been around for over 20 years and whilst not without its own issues is widely accepted and a beacon of transparency, with the referee and TMO mic’d up and their conversations broadcast on television and to members of the crowd with a “Ref Link” earpiece. The NFL and NCAAF has had Instant Replay seemingly forever. And tennis has Hawkeye, with the US Open removing line judges completely from the majority of courts and relying solely on Hawkeye for line calls.

Football was really the last major ball sport to introduce video replay, having made an initial foray into using technology to assist the officials with the introduction of Goal Line Technology. Many fans – myself included – wanted the use of video technology in football having seen it successfully adopted in other sports.

I qualified as a football referee in October last year, having refereed games as a coach/parent for several years. So far I’ve only refereed youth football but even so I have an appreciation for how difficult it is to get every decision right over the course of 90 minutes (or in my case 60 or 80).

Only coaches, players and parents can complain at me if they think I’ve got something wrong, not a crowd of tens of thousands plus the millions watching at home and online, so VAR could only be a good thing, right?

The principles as VAR as laid out on the IFAB (International Football Association Board) website are helpful, and in common with other sports the video assistant referee (VAR) can only intervene ‘in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’. The only areas the VAR can get involved in are:

a. Goal/no goal

b. Penalty/no penalty

c. Direct red card (not second yellow card/caution)

d. Mistaken identity (when the referee cautions or sends off the wrong player of the offending team)

There is further clarity on each of those areas:

a. Goal/no goal

· attacking team offence in the build-up to or scoring of the goal (handball, foul, offside etc.)

· ball out of play prior to the goal

· goal/no goal decisions

· offence by goalkeeper and/or kicker at the taking of a penalty kick or encroachment by an attacker or defender who becomes directly involved in play if the penalty kick rebounds from the goalpost, crossbar or goalkeeper

b. Penalty kick/no penalty kick

· attacking team offence in the build-up to the penalty incident (handball, foul, offside etc.)

· ball out of play prior to the incident

· location of offence (inside or outside the penalty area)

· penalty kick incorrectly awarded

· penalty kick offence not penalised

c. Direct red cards (not second yellow card/caution)

· DOGSO* (especially position of offence and positions of other players)

· serious foul play (or reckless challenge)

· violnt conduct, biting or spitting at another person

· using offensive, insulting or abusive action(s)

*Denial of an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity.

d. Mistaken identity (red or yellow card)

· If the referee penalises an offence and then gives the wrong player from the offending (penalised) team a yellow or red card, the identity of the offender can be reviewed; the actual offence itself cannot be reviewed unless it relates to a goal, penalty incident or direct red card.

The introduction of VAR was always going to take some time to bed in, and teething problems are to be expected with the adoption of new technologies and processes. But the current issues go beyond teething problems, so with a clear and seemingly straightforward process, where is it going wrong?

This weekend’s incidents highlight the problems.

Let’s look at Bruno Fernades’ goal first, which was flagged as offside by the Assistant Referee, a decision overturned by the referee Stuart Attwell following VAR’s intervention.

Much of the criticism has centred on whether or not Rashford was interfering with play, but the Law is more detailed than just “interfering with play”

‘A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched* by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:

· interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or

· interfering with an opponent by:

· preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or

· challenging an opponent for the ball or

· clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or

· making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball’

The IFAB website has a section of FAQs under the Offside Rule section, one of which deals almost precisely with the incident from the weekend (note, my emphasis of certain words):

‘An attacking player in an offside position (Team A) runs towards the ball but does not play the ball or prevent the opponent (Team B) from playing or being able to play the ball. What is the referee’s decision?

It is not an offside offence so the referee allows play to continue. The attacking player is only penalised if he/she plays the ball or interferes with an opponent.’

The undoubted conclusion when you understand the Laws of the Game is that the VAR decision to allow Bruno Fernandes’ goal was the right one, as Rashford didn’t actually attempt to play the ball, and didn’t directly interfere with an opponent

You might, like me, think the law needs changing to reflect that Marcus Rashford certainly looked like he was going to play the ball, and arguably influenced the play and the actions of the defenders/goalkeeper, but based on the Laws as currently written the correct decision was reached, despite the confusion and controversy.

As to the incident in Newcastle United versus Fulham, you cannot escape the conclusion that the correct decision was reached, but for the wrong incident.

In live action, referee Robert Jones waved away two penalty claims. VAR called him over to the pitch-side screen and he reviewed the second of the waved away claims, an apparent foul by Kieren Tripper against Bobby Cordova Reid.

Whilst the footage clearly showed Trippier making contact with Reid, this came after Reid had accidently stamped on Trippier, itself a free kick offence. Remembering that the requirements for VAR intervention require a ‘clear and obvious error’ or a ‘serious missed incident’ it us unfathomable why the referee was advised to review the incident, and even more unfathomable why he subsequently awarded the penalty.

To make matters worse, VAR didn’t refer the first waved away penalty, despite clear video evidence of a shirt pull on Andreas Pereira by Dan Burn.

It isn't just the Premier League either, with VAR failing to intervene to disallow a goal by Elche against Cadiz, despite a clear offside in the build-up, resulting in Cadiz demanding a replay.

So why do I think these incidents highlight the issues with VAR?

1. The VAR process is kept secret within the ground. IFAB do not allow VAR footage – or footage of any controversial decisions – to be shown within the stadium as the decision is being made. This is to protect the referee from outside influence. They do allow VAR replays to be shown inside the ground but only AFTER a decision overturned, and not for any decision that isn’t overturned, though this has never happened when I’ve been at St Mary’s. This leaves the paying fans completely unaware of why decisions are made, and it continues to amaze me that football is the only mainstream ball sport that allows this situation.

2. Even when you have the ability to watch the footage on television, due to the absence of audio of the conversations between the VAR and referee, there’s still no actual official explanation and when it’s not plainly obvious from the footage, commentators, pundits and viewers are left to fill the void with their own explanations.

3. Linked to point 1 above, there is little if any transparency and virtually no accountability. Decisions are rarely, if ever explained after the event.

4. The definition of ‘Clear and obvious’ is, ironically, not clear and obvious and seems to vary widely between VAR officials.

5. Individual errors by the referee are being replaced by individual errors by the VAR official, undermining the fundamental premise of VAR's introduction.

6. Too many broadcasters and commentators don’t know the Laws of the Game.

Like most things in life, the solution isn’t rocket science.

Firstly, the process of decision making has to be more transparent. IFAB already acknowledge how important transparency is, with their VAR protocol stating that 'The referee must remain ‘visible’ during the review process to ensure transparency'. But that is a show of transparency, not genuine transparency.

As happens in rugby, if the media and public (both at home and in the stadium) could hear the discussions and therefore the rationale for any decision it would make a big difference. Decisions would still be talking points and fuel conversation but at least fans would understand, even if they disagreed. The sooner this is addressed the better and it was heartening to hear new PGMOL Chief Executive Howard Webb confirm it was being explored.

Secondly, the PGMOL or Premier League should invest time and resources in proactively explaining the Laws of the Game as well as contentious decisions after the event. The NFL (though not exactly a beacon of transparency as Washington Commanders fans are well aware) does this very well through a standalone website and its NFL Officiating Twitter account. Closer to home, the British Horseracing Authority does a much better job than football despite having nowhere near as much money at their disposal through a dedicated Twitter feed and online database of Stewards (racing’s referees) decisions, as well as a standalone website for matters heard in front of their disciplinary tribunal.

Finally, whilst we must acknowledge that we can chase perfection in decision making but can’t achieve it, it is vital that there is accountability when mistakes are made.

What do I mean by accountability? I’m not talking about disciplining officials let alone sacking them, but simply someone, somewhere admitting when mistakes are made and taking responsibility for them.

This helps speed up how quickly people can move past mistakes. It doesn't damage reputations but enhances them, unless of course the mistakes are endless. It increases trust. It's called leadership.

Why organisations and leaders across sport, business and politics seem so averse to this remains a mystery to me.

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Paul Struthers
Paul Struthers
Jan 26, 2023

I was at St Mary's for the Carabao Cup Semi-Final this week so can confirm that the VAR replay of Saints' disallowed goal was shown on the big screen, but only once and it was around five minutes after the goal had been scored. Up until that point, other than the graphic saying "Handball Check" we were all in the dark.

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