From The Archive

Published on January 8th, 2018 | by Bill

Video Assistant Referees – shifting the error making process.

This piece, written by Phil Withall originally appeared in Issue 24 of the fanzine, released December 2017. We thought we’d post it for the wider world today, ahead of VAR’s introduction to English football in tonight’s FA Cup clash between Brighton and Crystal Palace.

We’ve become used to the advances in modern technology improving the way we do things, the way we operate and how we carry out tasks that were once complicated and hard to do but now are so easy.

Need to pay for something? Wave your phone at a till. Need to watch a film? Stream it to your watch. Need to adjudicate a contentious offside decision in the lead up to an important, possibly season-defining goal? There’s VAR, a video assistant referee. It is seen as the great leap forward. A quick, effective and reliable way to extinguish the outrage and controversy created by human error.

Except it isn’t, if anything the VAR is creating more controversy, more bitterness and a whole lot more disenfranchisement.

At the start of the current season, Australia’s FFA decided that they would trial the V.A.R in the A League. It was a move that wasn’t universally welcomed but the governing body have a habit of attempting to create diversions as they try to mask their general lack of original thinking and good governance by pointing away from themselves and shouting “Look! Squirrel!” at every opportunity.

The concept is straight forward enough.  An official sits’ in a room equipped with a monitor and watches the match via a feed from the host broadcaster. There are a set of parameters to assist them in determining what they can adjudicate on. FIFA have dictated that there are four types of incident that can be reviewed – goals, penalty decisions, red card incidents and mistaken identity, the mystery official can review the footage and make a considered and accurate call, notify the ref and justice can be served.

That’s the theory anyway. The reality is a confused, seemingly arbitrary system that has done little to improve the standard of decision making and is alienating supporters and managers alike.

There are many things wrong with the system. The main one is the fact that the decision is still made by a human. It’s still a referee making the final call and referees are fallible, if they weren’t then there would be no need for the VAR. Okay, the invisible man in the bunker has the chance to rewind the tape and watch it several times from several angles but that doesn’t mean they will be able to make a correct call. They will still be under pressure to make a decision, not the Roy Keane shouting in your face from two feet away sort of pressure but there is a different type of pressure, that brought on by the expectation they will be right because they have more time and more options to make the call with.

It’s simple to say something is wrong purely because you don’t agree with it or because it goes against what you see as being right, so here are a few points to reinforce what I feel is wrong with the VAR system. They will also act as a handy guide for when the system is eventually introduced in England.

  1. There is total confusion over when the system is used. Sometimes the on-field ref will call for it, sometimes the VAR will make a call and let the ref know. There have been occasions where play has continued for 3 minutes after the offence was committed and then the ref will produce a card.


  1. The inconsistency when deciding which incidents are reviewed. Here they have made a rod for their own back. An incident will be reviewed and a decision made yet when a similar event occurs later in the game it won’t necessarily be referred or reviewed. As we all know nothing gets a supporter’s blood boiling like perceived bias against their team. Frustration on the terraces and within a team can lead to rash moments on the pitch.


  1. How far back in the passage of play can the VAR go when reviewing a goal? In a recent match between Brisbane Roar and Newcastle Jets the home side had a 70th minute equaliser wiped out when Peter Green, the man with the remote control, looked back at the build-up to the goal and decided that a pass, three phases before the goal, from Massimo Maccarone (the same one that played for Middlesbrough a decade ago) was played from an offside position. That pass was played away from goal about half way into the Newcastle half. It took five minutes from the moment the ball hit the back of the net for the decision to be finalised.


  1. When the decision is made the on-field official is called to the side of the pitch and stares at a small screen as the off-field official talks them through the incident. The sight of the ref peering at an iPad nodding his head may not seem like much of an issue but, having witnessed it several times, I can say that it just aggravates the crowd further. It’s another layer in the time-consuming process.

There will inevitably be more technological advances introduced into football some, like goal line sensors are straight forward and work well. There is little room for error, it’s simply a matter of a computer determining if the ball crossed the line. There is no human error at play, it’s not open to interpretation or any other human influence. It does exactly what it should do and offers clarity where there was once doubt.

The main issue with the VAR is that there is still a lot of doubt. The decision isn’t a black and white call, there are still variables of interpretation involved. All the TV replays in the world won’t guarantee that the person watching them will make a correct decision. The rules of football are open to interpretation. They can be applied in different ways by different people and people make mistakes.

The FA Cup third round match between Brighton and Crystal Palace will be the first time VAR is used in a competitive English fixture. The fact that it is being implemented in only one match seems strange. Why that fixture? How can one match in a competition be played under a different set of rules to the others? Why wasn’t it implemented in earlier rounds? It appears that the FA are almost scared of the impact the system will have on the game. That they’re still not certain of its value. The first ten weeks of the A league season has provided plenty of reasons why they should be cautious. It’s not the panacea to the games flaws that it’s supporters seem to believe it is.

It’s not that I’m a technological luddite, this piece was only made legible by judicious use of the spellchecker, but the introduction of the VAR in Australia hasn’t improved anything. The only difference is that the human being making the errors is in a booth rather than on the field of play.


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