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The VAR controversy goes to 11

This topic is sure to get your dander up.

Spain v USA: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Everyone these days seems to have an opinion on Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Sure, in some leagues it seems to be working fine, but others still have some issues to work out.

For anyone not familiar with the reference in the title; look up the classic 80’s movie This Is Spinal Tap.

First a bit of history

VAR was first tested during the 2012–13 season of the Eredivisie in the Netherlands; the officials were impressed and petitioned to extend the trial through 2014. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) then approved worldwide testing for interested leagues starting in the summer of 2016. VAR started in the USA that August for MLS reserve sides playing in the USL. MLS and Australia’s A-League fully implemented it when they started play in 2017, followed by many of the European leagues.

In March of 2018, the IFAB gave full official approval to VAR for all competitions.

Sixteen leagues across the globe use VAR full time, while 11 others use it for only some games. It has now been used in many FIFA international tournaments.

The good

The IFAB has spelled out specific uses for VAR:

  • Goal / no goal situations. This includes checks to see if the ball went out of play, a player was offside, or encroachment.
  • Penalty / no penalty situations. Including if there was a foul, and if is in the box or not.
  • Red Cards. Checking to see if a foul was serious enough to warrant sending off.
  • Mistaken identity. Ensuring the correct player receives a card.
  • The VAR referee can alert the field referee about a play, but it must be a CLEAR AND OBVIOUS error. This, in many cases, is the key phrase that leads to problems (see The Bad below).

For most of the leagues that have used VAR on a regular basis, it has been useful in correcting errors that were missed by field referees, such as punishing players for off-the-ball fouls that referees didn’t see - but cameras did; and VAR has corrected mistaken identity cases in MLS on a few occasions. Fans only have to look at the MLS Instant Replay video series to see examples for and against (depending on which team you support). Fortunately for MLS fans, in 2019, the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) has begun a weekly video series explaining controversial calls.

The bad

The first international use of VAR came in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Being the first international use, it was bound to have some bugs needing to be worked out. In the end, the argument was that its use created as much “confusion as it did clarity.”

Several leagues also suffered from “technical malfunctions” in the first year of use due to problems including supporters flags obscuring cameras, cameras in positions that failed to give adequate coverage or not catching a play needing to be reviewed. Even two years after implementation in MLS, there are still calls that are shown to be wrong after the game has ended (see clip below). VAR use remains imperfect, and we must concede that it may never be perfect, but at least it’s better than nothing!

One major issue fans have against VAR is that it takes too much time. This is, and will remain, a valid point. However, as referees gain more experience with the system, review times have decreased. Many leagues still have the time problem and may continue to do so depending on use.

Perhaps the biggest issues are over lack of transparency and the “clear and obvious error” requirement. PRO has helped with the first with the weekly video series explaining at least some of the decisions, hopefully other leagues will follow suit. As for the “clear and obvious” point, certainly some things are being flagged for review that don’t need to be. The current Women’s World Cup is showing us some wonderful examples of this right now (more on that below). I’m not a referee, so I can’t adequately go into what is “clear and obvious” from their viewpoint, but in my opinion as a fan, calling a player offside for a hand or foot being ahead of the last defender is a misuse of the system. At the speed of the game, that would be completely impossible to see, and even slowing it down or using freeze frame, it can still be difficult. That’s certainly not clear nor obvious.

Current controversy

A large part of the issue is that the 2019 Women’s World Cup is the first time VAR has been used in ANY women’s soccer match worldwide (according to all official sources). That is a major win for the sport, but many of the same issues have re-emerged from the original trials in 2017.

The games in France are giving the world some prime examples of the misuse of VAR. First, the time spent for VAR reviews has led to 7+ minutes of extra time in many games. There have been goals called back for offside that were mere inches; PK’s retaken due to the keeper coming off the line mere fractions of a second before the kick; handballs that were too close to call; fouls that have been called - then rescinded, and numerous other examples. Were they correct? Some yes, others not. Was it a good use of time? Well, that depends on which side you support. It turned out well for France and Argentina, but I’m sure Cameroon, Scotland, Nigeria, and many other teams would disagree.

Unfortunately, Fox Sports has disallowed any of their videos from being shown here, so the best I can give you for viewing is the links below.

But here’s one from Sports Illustrated, which explains some of it.

At least part of the problem is likely due to referees being inexperienced with the system. Almost all of the field referees are using it for the first time, and were given only a few weeks worth of training before the games began. FIFA did bring in many VAR referees that are experienced with the system, but even if they are doing their job correctly, ultimately, it is the field referees that must make the decision. If they using VAR to second guess their original calls by reviewing plays that were close, rather than going with their original one, that may be a mistake, and it’s certainly the reason for games going far beyond 90 minutes. Contrast that with MLS in 2019 which has opted to not call close offside and some fouls until a stoppage, then have VAR make the check.

Will things improve as the knockout rounds continue? It’s doubtful. Yes, they are becoming more familiar with it, but we’re already nearly half-way through the knockout rounds, and it’s still being vastly overused when compared to the men’s World Cup last year. One thing you can say for the use of VAR in this competition is that it has been fairly consistent; the same types of calls are being made and/or changed, including many “fringe” calls that would and are passed over in leagues that have been using it for much longer.

What’s sad is that the 2019 Women’s World Cup will, in all likelihood, be remembered for the poor use of VAR instead of the positives that have taken place. Jamaica appeared for the first time. Two African teams moved to the Round of 16. There’s been amazing quality of play, and what is very likely the final World Cup appearances for many legendary players, including Megan Rapinoe, Marta, Christine Sinclair, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ali Krieger, Formiga, and so on.