The video assistant referee system was supposed to be a boon but it has turned into a curse. An incident at Tottenham on Saturday in which the VAR, Darren England, thought he was confirming a goal while actually disallowing it, is likely the greatest calamity to be linked to the technology. But it is hardly the first.
Can anything be done to fix VAR’s problems? Some argue not, and suggest the technology should be disposed of, an unlikely outcome for a number of reasons; the time and money and reputation invested being one, another being the fact refereeing would get demonstrably worse should it be removed. Others argue instead for substantial alterations, including the recruitment of referees from abroad and the training of VAR specialist officials. There are some simpler measures that could be taken, too …
England’s very particular mistake on Saturday could have been avoided. He thought the referee, Simon Hooper, had given a goal to Luis Díaz, but he hadn’t been paying attention and the goal had in fact been disallowed for offside. When England said “check complete”, therefore, using the official term to show a VAR has endorsed a referee’s on-field verdict, he confirmed an erroneous decision. Had the protocol required a fuller statement of confirmation, such as “check complete, player not offside”, or similar, things might have been different. VAR protocols allow decisions to be altered as long as play has not restarted and Hooper would have had the chance to clarify the call and make a change.
That the exchange of information between the VAR and on-pitch referees is suboptimal should be a cause for concern at the referees’ body, Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), and at football’s global rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (Ifab). But this specific issue also speaks to a broader point; that the communication in and around VAR is not good enough. There is a need to increase the amount of information that explains how VAR works and what it is for. Broadcasting live conversations between the referee and the VAR could go a long way to helping that (as is the case in rugby union) but we’re still far from such an outcome, with Ifab only now trialling it in its most basic form.
Howard Webb, PGMOL’s chief refereeing officer, has begun to talk through referee and VAR decisions on television, a key educational piece. There needs to be more public accountability from officials, more briefings, more data. But the messaging also needs to work at a fundamental level, helping everyone in football to understand what VAR is there to do. The fact it is supposed to eliminate egregious errors and is largely effective at it (with 116 overturns last season) is probably worth chucking in there. As is the detail that VAR is there to support the on-field referee, not reofficiate a match, and that a “clear and obvious” error is a high bar to clear if a decision is to be overturned.
English football would benefit from a deeper pool of professional referees, greater diversity in their experience and a broader range of skill sets. VAR specialists, for example, might be a solution, but you might also find they are too far removed from the experience of on-field officiating. Similarly, a call for former professionals to be given influence over VAR decisions would add expertise but also complicate decision making. You need a team of referees who are all-rounders and that will take both time and funding.
PGMOL is paid for by the Football Association and the English Football League and, ultimately, it is they who will have to put their hands in their pockets. They may be reluctant, but if clubs such as Liverpool are throwing around the phrase “sporting integrity being undermined” they might find they don’t have a choice.
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4) Push back
It has never been tried but there remains the possibility that the best solution to improving refereeing standards is to stop demonising individuals and castigating their decisions. Liverpool were wronged on Saturday but to read their statement you’d think they were denouncing the creation of a breakaway European Super League, so forceful was the language. And they are hardly alone in indulging in heat and hyperbole; VAR bashing is a contact sport, engaged in by pundits, fans and journalists alike on a weekly basis. Criticism is often histrionic, tending towards conspiratorial, and a lot of people who indulge in it should know better. That this behaviour is not harmless and has real-world effects, including the widespread and often violent abuse of referees at grassroots level, cannot be ignored. It also surely affects the recruitment of new talent.
At the beginning of the season, PGMOL spoke to players and managers about improving their behaviour towards officials as part of a “participant behaviour charter”. Perhaps we could all do with signing up to one.