VAR is a positive no matter how you look at it

One of the most contentious issues in the world’s most popular sport, proponents have been calling for the use of video assistance for years.

After many years of discussion, FIFA has bowed down to demands and introduced a video assistant referee (VAR) and ‘new’ technology to the beautiful game on the world stage.

One of the most contentious issues in the world’s most popular sport, proponents have been calling for the use of video assistance for years. Despite its widespread use in other sports, football had long avoided its introduction, with early mock trials only getting the green light in 2012.

The VAR ‘moment’

Many football fans have a ‘moment’ they recall with a sense of outrage that a VAR could have prevented. For me – and most Irish fans – it was Thierry Henry’s infamous handball which granted France a spot in the 2010 World Cup over Ireland. Prepare for a rant.

I recall begging my boss at the time to let me leave early to catch the majority of the match, a second leg test to qualify for the 2010 Finals. He reluctantly agreed, and I raced to join my friends to watch a game that could have gone down as one of Ireland’s greatest results. In Paris, Ireland Captain Robbie Keane had cancelled out a 1-0 aggregate lead to France with a 33-minute goal, which proved enough to drag the tie into extra time.

With 17 minutes to go, Henry handled the ball twice in the build-up to William Gallas’ match-winning goal, an offence stomach-churningly obvious from the replay I’ve since watched a thousand times. The event shattered Irish hearts and spurred millions of conversations starting with: “what if there was a video ref?”

Paying the penalty

Almost half of professional football matches are decided by a factor of one goal, meaning one wrong decision by a referee can too easily be the difference between a just and unjust result. The argument of ‘swings and roundabouts’ means very little when it’s your team at the wrong end of it.

Hence the need for a VAR – I for one am happy and relieved to see this technology being adopted.

The number of penalties in this World Cup is a good example of a step change here – penalties are one of the four types of decision that can prompt intervention from the VAR, alongside goals, red cards and cases of mistaken identity. Historically, referees have often shied away from giving ‘softer’ penalties; i.e. an incident where the general consensus is that a free kick would have been given if it had happened outside the box.

28 penalties have been awarded so far, excluding shootouts, already far exceeding the previous record of 18 awarded in each of the 1990, 1998 and 2002 finals; and we still have two matches to go. Of penalties given, seven have come from the VAR team holed up in Moscow. Referees no longer have to doubt themselves with such a massive decision and penalties can be awarded when they should.

This has also caused some tension – consider Antoine Griezmann’s penalty against Australia in the group stages. The referee elected not to give a penalty to what appeared to be a dive by the French forward. The VAR recommended a second look, leading to a penalty kick which kick-started France’s win over Australia, a contributing factor to both countries advancing and exiting the competition, respectively.

Critics immediately took the opportunity to slam the decision, labelling the penalty as ‘soft’. Soft it was, but Socceroos centre-back Joshua Risdon left a trailing leg which caught Griezmann. The fact is that we’re not used to seeing this type of penalty given because referees often missed them. Risdon – and others – may be more careful next time they’re in a similar situation.

A more definitively good VAR decision was made in the Brazil v Costa Rica group stage fixture – Neymar, a player few would argue goes down easier than most, appeared to be fouled in the box with 12 minutes to go and the sides scoreless. The referee instinctively awarded a penalty, but then reversed his decision upon a tip from his VAR and then watching replays of the incident.

Brazil won the match anyway, but they had to do it the right way.

Criticism or teething

One of the main criticisms of the VAR, and rightly so, is that there has been a lack of consistency. While mistakes have been avoided, others have been ignored – in the same match highlighted above, Brazil’s Marcelo should have received a red card for an off-the-ball face shove on Costa Rica’s Johnny Acosta. The referee, assistants and VAR all missed it and Marcelo got a lucky escape.

There were other potential red card and penalty decisions – some debatable, some certain – that were missed, but it’s important to step back and remember that we’re in the teething phase here. This is the first time the VAR has been used on the world stage, and we’ll have plenty of time to iron out the kinks as it continues to be applied en masse.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that critics’ best-laid fears of the VAR slowing down and taking the magic out of the game have not come to be. It’s been an incredible and unique World Cup, with goals and shocking outcomes galore.

A more quality game

We’ve seen an average goals-per-match ratio of 2.6 and 27 matches with three or more goals. Only once have we been subjected to a 0-0 draw – there were seven in total at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Croatia has battled its way to its first-ever World Cup Final, playing an entire additional match of extra time and two sets of penalty shoot-outs to get there. Neither Germany, Argentina or Brazil appeared in the final four for the first time ever. The quality and entertainment value in the football we’ve been watching has been incredible, and we need to acknowledge the VAR’s role in that.

Referees, bolstered by their on-demand second chances, are handling the new technology very well. They’ve raised their standards and are letting the game being played, while not being afraid to defiantly deny players’ calls for a look at the replay when they’re confident in their decisions.

Over time, I believe we may see the VAR reduce the level of diving, simulation and excessive time wasting in the beautiful game – the top complaints from non-football fans.

Sadly, these issues have still plagued the 2018 World Cup, and sadder still the main offenders are young players such as Neymar and Mbappé. Knowing the billions of people watching the world over see this play acting for what it is should be enough to prevent it, but it isn’t. Perhaps knowing the referees can wind back the tape will encourage more players to think twice and thus rid the game of behaviour like this that can spoil it.

Like many other sports, football is evolving and finally availing itself of the digital tools available to it. The VAR is creating a more accurate, fair and high-quality game, no matter how many ways you look at it.

Oisin O’callaghan

Senior Consultant