The Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) was one of the big talking points ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It has been shown to positively alter the accuracy of decisions in football. However, for English fans, for whom VAR has been seen sparingly in cup competitions, this was seen as a risk. As with all amendments in sport, experts and journalists are quick to pick up on the misgivings of such systems. The major worry seemed to be whether the review system would disrupt the flow of the game.
I am still against the video referee system for the reasons I outlined in a previous blog post (A Howler For Marriner But Please No Video Referees), but as the World Cup has shown, it does serve its purpose in reducing the number of ‘clear and obvious errors’. However, such is the subjective nature of decisions in football, rather than eliminating mistakes altogether, the VAR system either serves to highlight a wrong decision or move the burden of proof from the on-field referee to the designated VAR official.
This idea of highlighting an incorrect decision was obvious in the final. The ball struck the hand of Ivan Perisic following a corner for France in the 33rd minute. What followed was the amalgamation of the new VAR system working well and a century-old law continuing to be implemented incorrectly. Thus highlighting a wrong decision.
Following a recommendation from the VAR official, the on-field referee reviewed the incident, reversed his decision, and gave a penalty. Ignoring the stipulations of the handball law in the process. There is no way that Perisic deliberately handled the ball as he had a very short amount of time to react to the diversion of the ball from Matuidi’s head.
But Perisic did gain an advantage. If he hadn’t used his hand or arm there was a goalscoring opportunity for France. The law is unworkable. Remove the subjectivity. Outside the box, referees will almost always give a direct free kick if the ball strikes an individual’s hand or arm. This should be the same in the box. Hand-to-ball? Penalty. Ball-to-hand? Penalty. Simple.
The naysayers will argue that forwards will aim for defenders arms to get penalties. But in reality, most defenders already put their arms behind their backs when facing a striker.
Many pointed to the fact that the wrong decision in the final was not the fault of VAR, as the decision was ultimately made by the on-field referee. However, the very nature of there being an on-field review suggests that the VAR official thought that the referee had made a ‘clear and obvious error’.
The referee may be assisted by a video assistant referee (VAR) only in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or ‘serious missed incident’.
It then takes a very assertive individual to stick to their original decision and ignore his fellow professional in a van full of televisions. The review itself put pressure on Nestor Patana (final referee) to change his mind. If the reverse had happened and Patana had given the penalty and was shown the review, I think he still would have reversed his decision. Surely if it is a ‘clear and obvious error’ or a ‘serious missed incident’ the on-field referee should not need to review it. Instead, the VAR official should inform the referee of his mistake and the appropriate action taken.
The waiting time for the action to restart was always going to be scrutinised with the focus on coming to the correct decision rather than the time taken for the review:
There is no time limit for the review process as accuracy is important than speed.
The longest on-field review took 9 minutes in Iran vs Portugal. Even on this occasion, the excitement of awaiting the decision meant that focus on the game didn’t waver. The tension associated with awaiting a video-based decision is something that cricket has benefitted from, and that apprehension was present during the 2018 World Cup. The time taken for the correct decision to be made is not an issue as long as that time is added on to the end of the game. This was the problem. The time added on in Portugal vs Iran game should have been 13 minutes but only 8 were played.
4th officials very rarely add on more than 5 minutes to the end of a game for stoppages. Showing 13 minutes on the board at the end of the game would be met with uproar from players, coaches and fans in a beneficial position in the game, but if that is the amount of time that has been lost during the half, that is the amount of time that needs to be added on. Games of football should have 90 minutes of action, but we consistently see less than that.
VAR is here and it is here to stay. Increasing the responsibility of the VAR officials to make key decisions and adding on the time required to make those decisions are simple fixes that will serve to increase the efficiency of the system without reducing the drama associated with it.