PhD candidate in Sociology, Nord University, Norway
Translation by Jeremy Crump, Visiting Fellow, De Montfort University, UK
Advocates of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) want us to believe that everything in football is black and white, wholly right or completely wrong. But it is not like that at all. The introduction of VAR highlights several paradoxes which have made VAR a predictable tragedy. In many ways, VAR is in conflict with the essential nature of football and with that which makes us love the world’s most popular game. As a result, VAR is condemned to fail. Here, I present and discuss five main paradoxes of VAR.
We need a fuller debate
It has been interesting, at times frustrating, to follow the often heated public debate which has accompanied the brutal invasion of VAR in top-level international football. The new refereeing tool expresses a complex development in modern football. It affects how the game is played and how we watch it. One of the main problems of the debate about the use of the new technology is that it is all too often restricted to very narrow aspects of VAR. A lot of attention has been given to problems relating to handball decisions (post VAR) and the time which VAR reviews take up. Two separate issues have been mixed up in the VAR debate:
- How far refereeing decisions which are supported by VAR have been correct in terms of the laws of the game, and
- Whether the laws themselves (in the light of VAR) are misguided (especially when it comes to handball).
But VAR is about much more.
The whole VAR system comprises four elements: VAR technology, VAR guidance, the laws of football, and the referees who use these three other elements. What I find missing is a more comprehensive debate which takes the full range of issues into account and brings more arguments to the table. I argue that a number of interlinked VAR paradoxes are causing the use of video technology in football to fail.
The five main paradoxes of VAR
1. Impossible assumptions, more injustice, and added focus on the referee.
VAR is intended to reduce the number of crucial refereeing errors and make football fairer, at least that is what we keep hearing. While there has probably been some success when it comes to reducing the number of refereeing errors, football has hardly become fairer because the underlying assumptions of VAR are completely paradoxical.
The intention of VAR is to catch all crucial refereeing errors which are clear and obvious, but there is no objective, precise definition of what constitutes clear and obvious and what does not. The fact is that football is not a matter of black and white decisions.
On the contrary, VAR actually (at least to some extent) makes football more unfair because some incidents are selected for review while others are not. The problem is thus the subjective boundary between breaches of the laws of football (match incidents) which are overlooked and those where VAR kicks in. This is VAR’s biggest dilemma. VAR is also, by implication, intended to ensure that there is less focus on the referee. It is my impression, though, that refereeing decisions are discussed much more than they used to be (before VAR). Refereeing has become if anything more controversial as a result of the use of VAR.
2. Incomprehensible use of time, grey areas, and undermining the referee’s authority.
When the VAR system first decides that something is ‘clear and obvious’ and that a decision should be made, it implies that all VAR decisions could have been taken in less than ten seconds as the decisions should be completely straightforward. Quite often, we have seen that refereeing decisions become wrong (or at least very debatable) even with the use of VAR. Additionally, a minute or two is taken to make the decision. Two minutes wasted only to get the wrong decision!
The reason why all VAR decisions take more than ten seconds can only be that the incidents reviewed (by the VAR system and the referee), simply are not clear and obvious at all.
Instead, each incident has to be evaluated and discussed over and over again until a preferred interpretation is reached. This only goes to show that football has many grey areas and is most often not a matter of black and white. When VAR is used in this way, it disrupts and kills the flow of play. Additionally, VAR is not addressing obvious refereeing mistakes, as was intended. Rather, it is taking refereeing out of the hands of the referee. Consequently, some referees seem – consciously or not – to have stopped blowing the whistle for offside, penalties, etc., knowing that they can depend on VAR. A number of studies indicate that fewer offside decisions are being made than was the case before the introduction of VAR.
3. Slow motion makes incidents look more serious.
Is a ‘clear and obvious error’ in slow motion necessarily a clear mistake at normal speed? Is the former always indisputable evidence for the latter? My contention is that the answer is usually no. Everything looks much worse in slow motion with cameras providing 360 degree coverage. It has been demonstrated scientifically that referees are more likely to give red cards and penalties when they have slow motion images to rely on.
4. Out of step with the ‘everything is connected to everything else’ logic of football.
Football consists of a coherent sequence of events in which one event is followed by and shapes the next. Thus, the logic of football is that ‘everything is connected to everything else’. A wrongly given throw-in, for example, can ultimately be decisive for the result of a match (or lead to a VAR situation later on for that matter). Irrespective of how one decides to solve the problem of VAR’s retrospective application (that is, how far back VAR should be used to view a sequence of events), it will of necessity be starting from the wrong place and therefore be basically wrong in principle.
5. Breaking with the characteristics of football.
A large part of football’s popularity and attractiveness arises from the expression of its inherent and fundamental nature: Football is basically quite a simple game with relatively simple rules and little equipment required to play. The game is for everyone and can be played in a similar way anywhere in the world. Furthermore, football has the potential to create unforgettable experiences and feelings.
VAR constitutes a certain break with all these characteristics.
First, VAR is not accessible for everyone. VAR is principally for the TV audience who in theory can (I stress can even if this is not the situation today) get sufficient information about what is happening. At the same time, VAR is really confusing for the fans at the ground. The crowd is alienated (even though this could be ameliorated to some extent through more use of big screens). Second, VAR plays a great part in widening the gap between elite football and the rest. VAR contributes to making the way football is played by the elite increasingly distant from the grassroots. Third, VAR is making football more complicated and more difficult for most people to understand.
Fourth, VAR tends to destroy ‘the magic of the moment’ in football, especially if it is necessary to wait a long time to find out whether a goal counts or not. A goal (or a penalty) awarded by VAR will clearly never be able to replace the spontaneous delight (or dismay) of a goal awarded in the moment. I do not deny that a certain excitement arises in waiting for a VAR decision, but emotions in football are primarily derived from spontaneity. Real fans do not want to be told by some authority when they should celebrate.
VAR is in fact doubly damaging for the emotional nature of football. It restrains spontaneous emotions even when nothing seems to have gone wrong, so that the players, managers, TV commentators and supporters often have to exercise a certain restraint in celebrating or bemoaning a goal. The emotional aspect of football is too important to be destroyed. As I see it, football as a whole is becoming less spontaneous and emotional. This is sad and threatens football’s unique character and position.
Looking for correct answers where there are none to be found
The first of the five paradoxes is perhaps the most important because the premise of VAR, in my view, builds on the major misconception that football can be reduced to and analyzed in terms of an unproblematic distinction between right and wrong. This is obviously wrong. VAR is taking football towards a science in which lines are drawn digitally on a grainy still photograph, even when we do not know that the action has been frozen at precisely the right moment. Technology is capable of making some black and white decisions in a matter of seconds. Perhaps the most obvious example is whether the ball has gone over the goal line or not.
Top-level international football has goal-line technology which works very well. But in my view, technology should never have been introduced in situations which are nonetheless fundamentally subjective anyway (penalties, red cards, etc.). Even marginal offside decisions have become problematic as we cannot yet fully trust the technology used (the margin of error is too big as the technology is much too inaccurate).
There has always been an unspoken acceptance that the laws of football do not prescribe rigid decision making. What counts is the referee’s discretion. Hence, VAR poses a problem for football’s highest authorities: They are called on to make rigid solutions for situations which are not rigid at all. The fact that two referees can actually make different interpretations and so arrive at distinct decisions when considering the same situation, does not need to be a problem. Indeed, it points to something deeply rooted in the underlying logic of football, namely its subjective nature. In this way, VAR is an unsuccessful attempt to make football objective by removing its subjective elements and turn it into something black and white.
This is, of course, a stillborn project simply because football is subjective by nature. Football has never been 100 percent fair and it will never be, whether or not there is VAR. I think most people are happy to live with that.
The pursuit of fairness is not football’s most important battle
Making the game as fair as possible is definitely not football’s most important battle. Among the things which threaten football the most, I think, is time-wasting, a problem which VAR may be making worse (although there has been little research into this topic).
In the last men’s World Cup there was almost no effective playing time in the last quarter of any of the matches. The average time the ball was in play during the full time (90 minutes plus added time) in the competition was 55 minutes, a significant reduction from the 2014 World Cup. The use of VAR presumes that there will be more additional time than was the case before VAR. But as everyone knows, the right amount of added time is never added. Consequently, VAR will probably contribute to a reduction in the time the ball is in play from the current (shockingly low) level. Less free-flowing playing time leads to a less interesting game.
Paradoxically, the uncompromising pursuit of the fairest possible football may be the very thing which takes the life out of many people’s enthusiasm for the game. Don’t get me wrong, it is, of course, important that football is sufficiently fair, but that is actually not the most fundamental issue for the game. Furthermore, arguments about refereeing decisions are not the main driving force of football. Refereeing decisions are not primarily what makes people enthusiastic about football. The main driving force of football is rather the pleasures from the joy of the game, companionship, unity, belonging, emotions, goals and great performances (tackles, dribbling, shots, saves, etc.), which bring both immediate enthusiasm and memories for life.
A worthless report advocated by the VAR sympathizers
VAR enthusiasts often base their case on numbers, strengthening their love for the ‘quantification’ of football. They refer in particular to a research report. commissioned by IFAB (International Football Association Board) and FIFA’s (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Football Technology Innovation Department. IFAB clearly want to give the impression that VAR has worked, so the report published in January 2018 comes with little credibility.
The research covers about 1,000 matches in which VAR was available, including matches in over 20 countries played since March 2016. The interim findings suggest that VAR was used in about one game in three and that it took on average 70 seconds to carry out an ‘on-field review’ (OFR, i.e. incidents where the referee refers to the video screen). It also claims that the proportion of correct decisions, when compared with matches without VAR, has risen from 93% to 98-99%. This statistic is of course somewhat unreliable since what is right or wrong to a great extent is a subjective matter. What is most striking, though, is that the report says nothing at all about the possible implications for the game, either on the field or off it.
None of the paradoxes I have identified in this article are taken into account in the research. Because none of the dilemmas which arise from the use of VAR are considered, it follows that the report is so uncritical that it cannot be taken seriously. In other words, the report is more or less worthless.
The report’s lack of a critical approach is almost comical given its declared aim:
… to try to establish whether using video assistant referees (VARs) could improve the game, particularly in terms of fairness. As part of the assessment, the IFAB wants to understand the impact on the game for all stakeholders including referees, players, coaches, officials and fans/spectators.
This statement confirms that the report is based on a very narrow understanding of the concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘fans/spectators’. IFAB and FIFA may have got the results they wanted, but the footballing public will not be fooled. At least not all of us.
Closing thoughts: Why VAR has not been worth the trouble
After all, we must ask ourselves: If VAR is the answer, what was really the question in the first place? It does not seem to me that football had a desperate need for VAR. Remember that over 90% of refereeing decisions (on average) were right before VAR. The claimed increase in the number of correct decisions due to video technology is a meagre 5-6 percentage points.
My conclusion is clear: It is certainly not worth all the fuss and negative consequences for just a few percentage points more in correct decisions. Almost every weekend VAR is sucking the life out of football by removing the focus from everything I love about the game. Enough is enough.
What VAR gives and what it takes away from the game and our experience of it are completely out of balance. VAR has broken with so much of the nature and beauty of football that we should be spared this madness. VAR is not just in conflict with the spirit of the game, it is obviously damaging it. The philosophy of VAR is said to be ‘minimum interference – maximum benefit’. What has happened has been the complete opposite: ‘maximum interference – minimum benefit’. The intention of introducing VAR to the world of football was basically a good one. The only problem is that it was not well thought-out. Now it is time to throw VAR in the bin.
Whether you are pro VAR or not, you cannot dispute the fact that the discrepancy between VAR’s intentions and its consequences is clear. Let’s face it: Football has not become fairer (rather the opposite) and frustration is increasing in almost every area of the game (among players, managers, fans and TV pundits). VAR kills both the flow of the game and the atmosphere. We are not able fully to appreciate every goal anymore. The game has become more distant from the grassroots, from the crowd at the ground and from most people’s sense of fairness. Finally, refereeing decisions have been more (not less!) controversial.
VAR is based on a wholly unreasonable logic. The paradoxical nature of VAR meant that it was expected to fail. It was bound to. So, I am not surprised, only angry, sad and worried about the future of ‘the beautiful game’.
A lost battle?
Now, the question is whether the battle against VAR has already been lost. I fear it has. It looks as though FIFA and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) support VAR. Why they do so is a matter for speculation. Anyway, these powerful football authorities usually get what they want. Even so, I believe that this is a fight worth fighting because, for me, VAR is spoiling ‘the beautiful game’ which I have spent a great part of my life admiring.
How far is football willing to go in the name of correct decision-making and fairness? I think I know the answer and the answer worries me.
Several paradoxes are condemning VAR to failure. When the use of VAR is out of step with common sense, football has got itself in a ‘clear and obvious’ offside position. Only VAR can save it – by VAR being scrapped.
Copyright © Mads Skauge 2019