The debate about the use of technology in sport has been going on for the better part of this century. Despite the consensus that technology makes games fairer, its inclusion divides officials, players and fans alike.
Some sports — tennis being a prime example — laid out a blueprint at the start of the century for how technology could be incorporated to make the game better. Other sports, such as cricket, had to bring in technological aid to alleviate criticism of officials when it was at an all-time high.
Football neither took one route nor the other. Multiple reasons, such as the pace of the modern game, the authority of the referee and the presence of several grey areas in game-play, delayed the introduction of video-assisted refereeing. Furthermore, a large faction of fans and players alike believed that a video-based system would take too long to finalise decisions, which would kill the spirit of the game.
What are the grey areas, you might wonder? The rules of any sport are detailed to cover as many aspects as possible, thus marking out black and white boundaries. However, a certain level of judgment is in the hands of the official. In cricket, for example, the Decision Review System (DRS) might show an ‘Umpire’s Call’ on a leg-before-wicket or LBW review and stick with the on-field umpire’s decision. On another day, the outcome might be different. Football, being a contact sport, offers a much larger number of such grey areas, including potential fouls, handballs, offsides, bookings and awarding of throw-ins and corners.
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) made its debut during the 2018 World Cup, with an aim to rectify “clear and obvious errors” pertaining to offsides, handballs in the build-up to goals and fouls leading to possible red cards or penalties. A VAR team would review every questionable incident and relay information to the on-ground official, who might see replays himself on a pitch-side TV monitor.
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The trial in the World Cup was largely a successful one, prompting most of the big leagues to implement the system. The Premier League, however, opted against it and proceeded without the technology. But incidents such as Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Willy Boly’s goal against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion’s Charlie Austin’s disallowed goal against Watford (and the rant which followed afterwards) forced the CEO of the Premier League to affirm that VAR would be a part of the refereeing set-up from the 2019/20 season.
Now, you must either be wondering what all the fuss is about (having replays will only mean correct decisions!) or you already know what’s coming next.
It started off with Raheem Sterling being adjudged marginally offside in the build-up to Manchester City’s third goal in their curtain-raiser against West Ham. The Premier League maintained that the striker’s armpit was offside, proven by a combination of blue and red lines showing the positions of the last defender and the striker at the time the final ball is played; a sight which has since become very notorious.
A lot of similar decisions ensued; every time a goal was scored after what seemed like a perfectly timed run by a striker, the lines would come up and somehow the goal would be chalked off for the barest of margins.
Roberto Firmino’s armpit vs Aston Villa, John Lundstram’s toe vs Tottenham, Sadio Mane’s hip vs Watford, Harry Kane’s armpit vs Brighton, Teemu Pukki’s shoulder against Tottenham, Wilfried Zaha’s toe against Southampton, Dan Burn’s arm against Bournemouth, Jonny Otto’s side foot against Liverpool and Lys Mousset against Manchester City are just a few examples of the decisions which went down to millimetres.
More recently, in a game between Burnley and Aston Villa, Jack Grealish opened the scoring for Villa. After a delay of five minutes, in which players had to resort to warm-up drills to keep themselves warm, the goal was chalked off for offside after Wesley’s heel was deemed to be offside in the build-up. When Aston Villa scored again, their supporters didn’t celebrate till kick-off, a first in the Premier League.
VAR’s take on offsides has come under extreme criticism in the current season. A lot of people believe that if three different rulers and five minutes of drawing lines on a still are required to prove a player is offside, the player should just be considered onside. There is nothing clear and obvious in the error, and no significant advantage is gained by being, at best, a couple of centimetres ahead of the last man.
Furthermore, a technical challenge faced by VAR is that the frame rate of the footage is not high enough to ensure that the exact moment the ball leaves the playmaker’s foot is being analysed. Mark Clattenburg, a former referee, has suggested to remove offsides from the domain of VAR altogether, saying that it would make the game fairer. Mike Riley, the head of the Premier League officials, maintains that, as long as there is continuity in the decisions made, the VAR team at Stockley Park and the clubs will just have to accept them.
The other main concern with the use of VAR has been the inconsistency and disagreement of coaches and experts over the decisions. VAR failed to spot and punish a Youri Tielemens (Leicester City) tackle on Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson and a Jefferson Lerma (Bournemouth) challenge on Manchester City’s David Silva in the box. Everton’s Michael Keane’s step on Brighton & Hove Albion’s Aaron Connolly produced the first penalty to be awarded by VAR in the Premier League, a decision which prompted intense backlash by pundits. Everton boss Marco Silva claimed that his players were confused as to why the appeal for Richarlison’s penalty was not taken up by VAR just a few minutes earlier. Riley has since admitted that the decision was a mistake on behalf of the VAR.
More recently, however, Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was shown a straight red card for a high challenge on Crystal Palace’s Max Meyer after consulting VAR, which shows that the technology is getting better. Make no mistake though, VAR has made more correct decisions than controversial ones, and the number of bone-crushing reckless tackles or off-the-ball incidents has dropped resultantly.
The next two concerns with VAR underline the issues the anti-VAR party raised before its inception: delays and grey areas. On the opening weekend, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Leander Dendoncker’s goal against Leicester City was disallowed for a handball by the attacking team’s Boly. And even though the decision was correct, Wolves manager Nuno Esperito Santo lamented the fact that it took more than four minutes for the VAR team to arrive at the decision. Delays are a major problem, since replays aren’t shown on the screens in the stadium and stoppages only cause confusion. Grey areas are also a concern because, even with replays, a call on a handball or a foul cannot be obvious.
In a recent UEFA Champion’s League game between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, a PSG penalty and a red card to Real keeper Thibaut Courtois were overruled after VAR adjudged a push on the half line by Idrissa Gueye a foul. In a similar instance, Liverpool scored against Manchester City after a handball appeal against Trent Alexander-Arnold in the Liverpool box. VAR confirmed the goal, further exposing how different officials in different competitions use the system differently.
But the Premier League brought in VAR after two seasons of testing. Maybe it’s the protocols behind the technology. After all, VAR was brought in to ensure correct decisions and an incident in the game between Liverpool and Tottenham showed how the current VAR protocols aren’t doing that. A lengthy VAR review followed the Liverpool goal to check on a possible handball against Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, a handball that would have been purely unavoidable. In all the commotion, the fact that Liverpool were wrongly awarded the throw-in went unnoticed.
Or maybe the problem lies in the rules of the game, which haven’t been tweaked to comply with the system. The rules state that any handball in the build-up to a goal renders the goal disallowed, whether intentional or unintentional. This rule is very difficult to explain, because it means that the definition of handball is different for the attacking and defending teams. This was depicted recently when Sheffield United defender John Egan headed the ball on to the arm of West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, for whom it was impossible to get his arm out of the way while running. The resulting goal was chalked off, West Ham denied a late equaliser.
While VAR is a necessity, something needs to be changed to make the system better, consistent and a means to ensure that correct decisions are made. Until this is done, everyone with big toes please time your runs a fraction late to stay onside.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, January 26th, 2020