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The system that was meant to help match officials make key decisions is doing more to fuel controversy than settle debates

15 July ~ What is about to be described may already be a thriving online subculture. And if it doesn’t exist, it surely will soon. Imagine an alternative set of season’s results for a team based on what the scores would have been had the referees not made “mistakes”. So a 3-2 defeat becomes a 3-2 win on the basis of a handball not spotted in a build-up to a goal or a penalty not given. Sometimes the original result might be allowed to stand even if it was a defeat but the team will invariably do better in the alternative world than they managed in reality.

Even those who construct imaginary league tables (and they may well be holding regular well-attended soirées) would be aware that football can’t ever be entirely fair – some teams will be successful because they can afford to buy better players, results are often determined by random factors such as a lucky deflection or an injury to a key player. But all will be convinced that the match officials’ judgment, even if honestly arrived at, has too often worked against them. Sometimes they will even be right. Anyone not able to cope with the prospect that real injustice will occur, sometimes in your favour, sometimes not, ought to give up on following football.

In reality, social media outrage during major events might suggest that some genuinely believe that all forms of uncertainty over the outcome of matches can be removed. The introduction of video technology at the higher levels was supposed to help referees make key decisions. With offsides, it could be said to have worked most of the time. In almost every other aspect of the game it has been hugely contentious, more often fuelling debates rather than settling them, to the obvious delight of the broadcasters striving to expand their influence.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup featured multiple controversies over VAR. The system’s supporters insist that any glitches in its application, and the interminable wait for decisions, will be sorted out by adjusting how referees and their colleagues in the TV room work together. Such arguments often go with criticism of individual referees’ suitability for running high-profile games (a regular theme during the World Cup, especially among those looking to draw unflattering comparisons with men’s football).

Even the advocates of VAR accept that the system places additional pressure on match officials. That might be resolved eventually, it is suggested, by giving the video referee sole responsibility for reassessing an incident. But there have already been numerous cases of action replays seen from a variety of angles being inconclusive and no more likely to be “right” than a snap judgment made by a referee on the pitch.

The fundamental problem with VAR was underlined by a few seconds of hesitation last summer. With the score at 1-1 in the first half of the 2018 World Cup final, referee Néstor Pitana was advised by his video room colleagues that Croatia’s Ivan Perisic may have handled in the area. After watching several slow-motion angles on the sidelines, Pitana started walking towards the pitch. He then turned and went back to have another look. The penalty that was awarded, and was widely agreed to have been harsh, gave France a lead that they built on but the referee was clearly unsure of what the replays showed even after several viewings. If he can’t have been certain, the penalty should not have been given. That moment showed how someone accustomed to being a sole authority might now be swayed by the majority decision even when it’s not clear-cut.

Sometimes this situation may lead to an injustice being avoided. During a 2019 World Cup second-round match, referee Riem Hussein awarded Australia a questionable penalty for the ball having struck a Norwegian defender on the arm. This was overturned after viewing the replay but a later Norway handball was missed by match officials and video assessors, while Scotland should have had a penalty for an even more obvious handball in their group game against Japan.

Technology may correct some errors but often it won’t be possible to reach a verdict that is unambiguously right. With VAR being introduced into the Premier League for next season, the doomed pursuit of absolute truth will only lead to even more abuse being aimed at referees.

This article first appeared in WSC 389, August 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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