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VAR—as it’s currently being used—is ruining football

And no, I’m not just talking about Villarreal’s Friday match.

Levante UD v Villarreal CF - La Liga Photo by Get Ready Images/MB Media/Getty Images

It’s not just how our match went down. Commentators in the UK and Italy are also questioning what is going on with VAR—it’s killing the game.

As was mentioned earlier today on twitter by Colin Millar (editor, Football España website), ,VAR was supposed to be ‘clear and obvious’. It was supposed to improve officiating, move the focus away from officiating, and reduce controversy.

At the same time, we were promised there would be no disruption to the flow of the game, and VAR challenges would be clearly explained to fans in the ground.

The reality? None of this is true. VAR is being applied inconsistently, and let’s be honest—now, the fans have TWO referees to rage at, not just one, while the players on the pitch have none. It’s a complete joke. Fans in the ground don’t know what is happening or why. Players are frustrated. Coaches are frustrated.

The rules of football (soccer) have always allowed for subjectivity. What constitutes a foul in the box, worthy of a penalty award? (Yes, a foul in the box is punishable by a penalty but referees also know that a penalty award is a big deal, so in practice, what might be whistled outside the box may not be whistled inside.) What constitutes handball? Even the offside rule, with the adage that a ‘tie should favor the attacker,’ has an element of subjectivity to it.

VAR is being applied in a draconian fashion, removing subjectivity in cases like handball, offside, and the position of the goalkeeper when a penalty kick is taken. Is that what we thought we were getting when we decided VAR would be implemented? I don’t think so. And it’s not warranted.

VAR is taking control away from the referee on the pitch—the fellow who can warn players about how “next time I’ll call that foul”, “next time I’ll give that card”, “that was an iffy challenge in the box but I’ll let it go this time”, whatever. Over the course of 90 minutes plus injury time a good referee will talk to players. He’ll make clear what it OK and what is not. But now, it’s the unseen referee in the VAR review box upstairs that is the final arbiter. How is that improving the game????

It’s not just that VAR is removing subjectivity, either—it’s that the “objectivity” it purports to provide is a sham. Let me explain.

At least in Spain (and I think elsewhere too) the TV images the VAR uses are shot at a speed of 25 frames per second. (h/t to @thepalmeraward on twitter for this analysis). So, each frame happens four-hundredths of a second apart. That may not sound like much, but when a player is—for instance—running at speed, and/or a player is swinging a foot at a ball, it can be important.

Consider an offside play. There are two questions—when does the passer actually strike the ball, and what is the position of the player at that point? How likely is it that one of the frames will be taken EXACTLY when the passer strikes the ball? (and how precisely could tell it is that frame, rather than the one before or after)?

Now consider the player running into space to receive a pass. Let’s say for sake of argument he’s running at 24km/h (Iñaki Williams is supposed to have been timed at 36km/h, so that’s not too bad). 24km/h is 400m/minute, or 6.67 meters per second (667 cm/sec). So, in that four-hundredths of a second between frames, a player could cover almost 27cm of ground. That is a lot.

So, there is a period of uncertainty as to when the ball is actually hit, and there is, therefore, a huge “error bar” in where a player actually is when that ball is hit—be it a striker running on to a pass, or a keeper diving off his line to save a penalty. But we’re being presented with these absolute “black-and-white” calls—the VAR shows DEFINITELY a striker’s boot was two or three centimeters in front of the defender, so it’s a clear offside!! That’s simply not so.

So to sum up, VAR is:

(1) taking control from the referee on the pitch

(2) changing the Laws of the Game by making what have always been subjective calls objective ones

(3) being applied as if it were 100% infallible where the reality is the technology has significant error bars attached to it

And finally,

(4) there is absolutely no consistency in how it is being applied. In some cases the referee on the pitch chooses not to refer a decision “upstairs”. In some, he does. In other cases, it’s the VAR referee who buzzes down to the referee on the pitch. We’ve seen numerous occasions where none of the players on the pitch have appealed for a penalty, the referee on the pitch has done nothing, but VAR has produced a penalty anyway.

Using slow-motion cameras to review a sport that happens at speed is inherently difficult. When video technology was introduced into American football, at first it was very limited, it was up to coaches to challenge plays—very specific rulings—and there was a limited timeframe for a video review. Now, unfortunately, it’s become a vehicle that takes forever, produces rulings that are simply ludicrous (how hard should it be to define what catching a ball is?, and has degraded the game and the fan experience.

What’s needed are clear rules on what can be referred upstairs by the ref on the pitch. Maybe we do need to allow each team one or two challenges per game, rather than the vagaries of the person in the VAR box as to what they’ll review and what they won’t. But we certainly need to accept that the technology is not infallible and that making calls on the basis of a centimeter or two is a mistake.

As for handball, it’s fine if VAR spots a handball the referee missed, but if the ref saw it, and decided the opponent’s arm was in a natural position when the ball hit it, it was ball-to-hand, etc., why should VAR overrule his judgment? The ref already knew the ball hit the hand—surely a decision based on watching what happened in real time versus stop-action/slow-motion is preferable.

What do you think??