Submitted by Connor Neugebauer ’23
The recent introduction of VAR into professional soccer has received mixed responses from fans of the sport. Many support this new technology and the transparency it brings, but others feel it drains the excitement and life out of the game. The latter group seems to be growing rapidly, as the story of more and more games shifts from the play of the two teams to how VAR “ruined” the match. But why do so many people think negatively about this new technology, and is it too late for VAR to be saved?
For those who don’t closely follow professional soccer, VAR stands for video assistant referee, and it is soccer’s form of video-review technology. It was first used in 2016, and has since become increasingly common in professional leagues across the world. Technically speaking, a VAR is an actual human referee that reviews plays, but the term can also be used to refer to the whole system of video-review in soccer. The VAR is located in the VOR (video operations room), and they have a team of three AVARs (assistant video assistant referees) that help them make their final ruling.
To make sure that VAR isn’t constantly stopping and starting the game to review calls, only four situations can be reviewed: goals, the awarding of a penalty kick, red cards, and the referee mistaking a player’s identity. When the VAR decides to review a call, the referee will draw a box with his hands to signal that the previous play is under an official VAR review. The VAR will then either confirm or overrule the referee’s initial ruling, and play will carry on.
In some cases, the head referee can decide to review the play himself at the RRA (referee review station) located on the side of the field. However, many professional leagues discourage this because it takes more time than a VAR review.
While VAR is brand new to soccer, other sports have been using video-review technology for years. The NFL first started using game footage to review plays back in 1978, and the NBA has been doing it for almost eighteen years.
Additionally, tennis and cricket have been using the Hawk-Eye computer system to review calls since 2006. Hawk-Eye technology uses video footage of the ball’s trajectory to generate a drawing of the ball’s path, making it just a more complicated video-review system. Most of these video-review systems in other sports are well-liked and accepted by fans, however, as opposed to the mixed feelings about VAR in soccer.
So, what do soccer fans think of VAR? Let’s start with the positive feedback. Many fans feel that VAR is a very good addition to the game because it allows the referees to make more accurate calls. They feel that enforcing the rules of the game is worth any of the issues that may arise from VAR.
Many professional players have also voiced their support of VAR. Thomas Müller, a forward on FC Bayern München, said “I’m definitely in favor of the VAR, because it makes (soccer) for sure much more honest.” Ex-player and Argentinian legend Diego Maradona is also in favor of VAR, saying: “Technology brings transparency and quality” and “Given the rate at which technology is advancing and the fact that every sport uses it, how can we not think about using it (in soccer)?”
While VAR can make calls more accurate, and can make soccer a much more honest game, many feel that it is not worth the problems it has caused. One of the main complaints about VAR is how long it takes. Unlike football and basketball, which are constantly stopping and starting, the game of soccer elegantly flows from play to play, and that fluidity is very important to fans. When VAR stops the game to review a play, it greatly slows down the match, taking the excitement out of it for players and fans alike.
Another complaint seems to be consistency. A call might get overruled by VAR one week, but the same situation happens again the next week, and the result is different. Now, VAR can only overrule the referee’s call if there is a “clear and obvious error” (Premier League). However, the definition of “clear and obvious” doesn’t seem to be agreed upon, and that has led to some serious issues.
Take the different rulings on offside calls, for example. “Using (the VAR technology used in European leagues), they can basically splice it down to one pixel of difference on the screen, to help determine if a player is in an offside position,” MLS referee Adam Wienckowski explains to me. He thinks looking at measurements that small is a bit too much: “Honestly, if you can’t clearly make that decision (if someone is offsides or not) with the naked eye, then hypothetically it’s not a clear and obvious error.”
The final issue that many have with VAR is its inaccuracy. While we can’t expect them to get every call right, the number of controversial calls since VAR’s introduction has been nothing short of abysmal. “(Referees) have a very tough job and I’m all for making their lives easier – but not at the expense of the flow of the game. If the VAR took away controversy I’d back it 100%. But we’re still having discussions about VAR,” says Liverpool midfielder James Milner.
Additionally, Braeden Smith, a student at St. Joe and an avid fan of professional soccer, says, “I like (VAR), but I think that there needs to be a better application and it needs to be more accurate.” Like the two of them, many fans wouldn’t mind waiting for the VAR to review calls, if they produced accurate results.
Unfortunately, the calls aren’t accurate enough right now, and if something is not changed soon, fans like Braeden that believe in VAR’s potential might just give up on it entirely.
So what can be done to save VAR? Well, there is no clear-cut answer. But there is one league, the MLS, that has had a positive reception of VAR. Other leagues, particularly those in Europe, might start receiving more positive feedback if they made their systems more like the MLS’s.
There are two key differences between VAR in the MLS and VAR in other leagues. The first is their interpretation of a “clear and obvious error.” As previously mentioned by referee Adam Wienckowski, the MLS thinks that something “clear and obvious” should be easily detectable by the naked eye. If other leagues adopted this definition, they might find that it leads to much more consistency in their calls and decisions.
The second difference comes with the referee’s onfield review at the RRA. Most European leagues discourage this because of the time it takes, but the MLS actually encourages it. They feel that giving the head referee the final say leads to more accurate calls, especially in tough situations where the correct decision isn’t always obvious. While this will most likely slow down the game even more, many fans and players have said they wouldn’t mind waiting as much if the calls were more accurate.
While it is not a perfect solution, adopting the MLS’s VAR system might fix some of VAR’s most prominent issues in other leagues, which are inconsistency and inaccuracy. Even if it doesn’t, at least it will be a step in the right direction. Because right now, many are losing their faith in VAR, and this will only continue until changes are made.