Video Assistant Referees (VAR) were introduced by FIFA to help on-field referees make correct decisions with the use of a VAR reviewing video footage of the play for game-changing events such as a goal, penalty decision, red card incidents or mistaken identity.
The system was first introduced during an international friendly between France and Italy in June 2016. Since then, it’s been a feature in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, domestic leagues around the world as well as top flight European leagues like the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 and English Premier League.
While generally viewed as a positive addition to football, the implementation and execution of VAR has been a hotly debated topic. Some fans and football players argue that it goes against the unpredictability of the game, removing the sport’s element of thrill and excitement. On the other hand, others welcome the increased scrutiny and help referees need to get decisions right in the fast-paced modern game.
Let’s take a look at some high-profile VAR decisions, its criticisms, and how it has affected the way we enjoy football overall.
High-Profile Controversial VAR Decisions
The stakes are high when it comes to knockout competitions in football, which seems like the perfect situation for VAR to be used in order to ensure a fair match and a worthy winner. History, however, tells us this isn’t always the case. And we don’t have to look far back to find controversial VAR decisions that leave pundits, fans, players and managers arguing over the result of the match.
Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspurs, 3-4 (2018 – 2019 UCL Quarter-Finals)
This thriller ended 4-3 to Tottenham, but it wasn’t the goals people were discussing after the match. Instead, all the attention was focused on two game-changing VAR decisions — Fernado Llorente’s 73rd minute goal to put Spurs ahead was reviewed for a potential handball but the goal was ultimately ruled to stand. Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling’s stoppage time equaliser was furiously celebrated, only for heartache to ensue when the goal was ruled out as VAR deemed him to be offside when the play began.
Brighton vs Liverpool, 1-1 (Nov 28, 2020 English Premier League)
The defending Premier League champions looked to be eeking out a 1-0 away victory after two Liverpool goals were deemed offside. In the dying minutes of the game, the ball fell to Brighton striker Danny Welback inside the penalty area. Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson managed a last minute clearance to clear the ball before Welbeck could shoot, before the latter stumbled to the ground without protest while both sides played on.
VAR eventually alerted referee Stuart Attwell to review a possible infringement, who proceeded to award Brighton a penalty, which they converted to draw the game. Replays showed that Robertson had connected with Welbeck’s foot while clearing the ball, and debates after the game focused on whether it should have been considered a foul or not.
The decision was especially egregious considering that just a week before, both Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion had been awarded penalties for similar fouls, only for VAR to chalk them off.
VAR, the Offside Rule and Linesmen
One of the side effects (and complaints) about VAR is how linesmen are instructed to react to offsides. With the implementation of VAR, linesmen are now told to leave their flag down and let play continue if they are unsure if a player is offside.
There have been scenarios where some linesmen err too much on the side of caution, letting the passage of play continue for an extended period of time even after a clear offside — much to the frustration of players. Some reason this is done to preserve the flow of the game, but it clearly defeats the purpose if an extended period of play is called back when it should have been ruled offside in the first place.
Some pundits and fans also criticise VAR offside calls for players that are fractionally offside, saying strikers should receive the benefit of the doubt in these situations. We’ve seen some of these calls come down to mere millimeters, and frustratingly, the inconsistencies when it comes to the VAR offside line placement and which body parts should or should not be considered offside doesn’t help either.
VAR and Goal Celebrations
Goals are an exhilarating moment in football. Managers, players, fans, no matter who you are, goal celebrations are an expressive moment powered by a surge of emotions.
Think of all the iconic goal celebrations over football’s history — Cahill’s corner flag boxing routine, Sturridge’s dance, Gerrad’s camera kiss, Ronaldo’s mid-air pirouette and even Peter Crouch’s robot.
Critics argue that VAR robs football of one of its most enjoyable parts of the game. And how players and fans now, instead of celebrating, hold their breath in doubt and hesitation. For many, this is enough to suck the joy out of football.
Have VAR slowed the Beautiful Game?
Critics of VAR repeatedly point out how the system interrupts the game’s natural flow, brings needless delays to play and slows the game down to a crawl as referees review decisions. It can certainly feel like ages if your team is on the receiving end of a review.
Objectively, VAR doesn’t slow the game down anymore than injuries, substitutions or even natural stoppages like throw-ins or goal-kicks. Aside from some instances where a longer look is needed, most decisions take up to 10 – 15 seconds, and happen while the play is going on (unless the referee is called to review).
The moment of truth: Is VAR good for football?
On paper, VAR is the system football has long been crying out for to bring fairness to the game and reduce ambiguity in referee decisions. Nothing else has impacted the modern game as much since goal line technology.
So why, in practice, has VAR been such a controversial topic? After all — other sports like rugby have implemented video review long before football with much less controversy in the decisions there.
We think it ultimately comes down to transparency and consistency when it comes to applying the rules. VAR’s most controversial moments have come from subjective calls and interpretation of marginal offsides that differ from game to game. It is clear that the implementation of VAR has drifted from its original intention, which is to correct glaring mistakes in officiating.
For VAR to improve and become universally accepted by managers, players and fans — there needs to be a common understanding of when VAR should be used and a set standard referees can refer to improve consistency in decision-making. The commonly quoted “clear and obvious error” where VAR is intended to be used, is unfortunately, not quite as clear and obvious as it needs to be.