Luke Moore is a co-host of The Football Ramble podcast.
The crazy, chaotic and endlessly entertaining 2018 World Cup, the pinnacle of the world’s most popular sport, doesn’t need any extra ingredients, but organizers saw fit to add one anyway: the debut of the video assistant referee, or VAR.
Like that new software at work you can’t quite get used to, VAR is here in full effect. Every game, every stadium. Get over it, Luddites.
Thanks, but at the risk of throwing my shoe into the lace-making machine of sport, I’d rather not.
VAR essentially means that a few officials, watching on video screens, stand ready to be consulted for their rulings on a range of refereeing decisions: goal or no goal; penalty or no penalty; red-card dismissal for dangerous play; mistaken identity of a penalized player.
Video review is used in professional basketball, baseball and other sports, but it’s an awkward fit for soccer, a flowing game with a clock that doesn’t stop. That’s not the only problem with VAR.
Soccer refereeing is not so error-ridden that the person who already has one of the toughest jobs in sport needs to have a little voice in his earpiece telling him that he really ought to ask the experts upstairs to take a look. An analysis of Premier League officiating in England found that referees, making a decision every 22 seconds, were accurate 98 percent of the time.
The last time I checked, a 98 percent success rate is spectacular for everyone who isn’t an airline pilot. Yet FIFA, international soccer’s organizing body, isn’t content with 98 percent. FIFA wants perfection. And that’s the worst thing about this otherwise incredibly entertaining World Cup: the quest to make the sport the most sanitized, safe, unblemished, choreographed piece of entertainment since the Blue Man Group.
Under the pretense of making the referee’s job easier, an entirely new and unnecessary layer of complexity has been added. It’s like trying to decorate your dining room in a wind tunnel with 100,000 screaming critics’ beady eyes following your every move, only for your neighbor to turn up at the window telling you that you’ve missed a bit.
Of course, even with VAR in the World Cup, we’re still seeing controversy by the bucket load. England’s Harry Kane against Tunisia and Spain’s Sergio Ramos against Russia were given the sort of attention by defenders once reserved for Hulk Hogan at a Royal Rumble, yet no penalties were awarded. How could the referees and the VAR wizards have been so oblivious? Simple: These are matters of interpretation.
You think the defender who mugged Kane in the penalty area should have been penalized? Well tough rocks, because the referee, employing his experience and judgment, didn’t agree.
Hundreds of moments in every match pose a question for the referee, each one with no clear-cut correct answer. It depends on how he views the game.
A particularly robust tackle may prompt a cautioning yellow card in the Premier League with an English referee, yet in a World Cup quarterfinal a Spanish official may deem it a sending-off, red-card offense. Another referee, knowing that the player who fell over when challenged is prone to exaggerating contact, might not call anything at all. And the VAR crew will have their own views.
Far from helping referees, VAR may be hindering them. I think we’re already starting to see referees during the World Cup becoming more indecisive, because they know they have the VAR safety net.
Yes, there are instances where video technology can work perfectly well: Either the ball crossed the goal line or it didn’t. But instead of turning over interpretation of the game to technology, everyone who cares about soccer — management, players, fans and the media — would do better to take some collective responsibility. How about truly making it easier for referees to exercise their judgment?
For starters, the ref shouldn’t be seen as an enemy to be undermined and berated during the game by fans and players and commentators, and then mocked endlessly by former players in the studio afterward. Why don’t FIFA and other soccer organizations do more to punish cheating during games? The sport is marred by constant diving, feigning of injuries and dishonest appeals for penalties. Empowering referees to clamp down on such behavior would certainly curtail it — freeing the refs to concentrate on officiating properly. Wishful thinking it may be, but if every player were 100 percent honest, the game would officiate itself. And then we would hardly need those 98-percent-accurate referees, let alone VAR.