A superhero/supervillain that is VAR and its Future in Global Football

VAR has come under scrutiny once more after a series of controversial decisions made using the instant replay system during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.  FIFA introduced virtual assistant refereeing technology on the global football stage in the 2018 FIFA Men's World Cup in Brazil. It has received significant push back from football fans who argue that VAR will disrupt the game as it has come to be loved. Much of the same argument still exists. The position of VAR skeptics is that an increased focus on accuracy would take away the flair and free play. The relevance of VAR has been brought into question even further this year. VAR dominated headlines in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup after players and coaches raised fresh criticism about its relevance to global football.

The statistics still show VAR improved the decision-making accuracy in the group stages to 98% as compared to 92.5% without it. Human error in football has always been frustrating given the fact that once the referee makes a call, whether right or wrong; there was no way to check in real-time. 
— Margaret Mandeya, FirstTouch Africa
Alex Morgan of the USA is fouled by Stefanie Van der Gragt of the Netherlands leading to a penalty during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 07, 2019 in Lyon, France.  (July 6, 2019 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

Alex Morgan of the USA is fouled by Stefanie Van der Gragt of the Netherlands leading to a penalty during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match between The United States of America and The Netherlands at Stade de Lyon on July 07, 2019 in Lyon, France.

(July 6, 2019 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

VAR controversy at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup  

FIFA's decision to approve the use of VAR at the tournament came in March, just three months before the start of the competition. The timing of the VAR was the major challenge, with some coaches and pundits calling out FIFA for using the Women's World Cup as a testing ground for VAR. Cameroon's Indomitable Lionesses had a passionate protest during their round-of-16, 3-0 loss to England. Specifically, after feeling hard done by, the Cameroonians proceeded to stop play for minutes, refusing to continue the game in protest of the VAR decisions. Ellen White's second goal of the match was firstly ruled as offside and later allowed after VAR consultation. The same way that the Indomitable Lionesses felt that VAR had robbed them of their chances; other teams also faced a similar fate to the Cameroonians.

Among the other teams that had a bone to pick with the VAR system, was Scotland.  In the group stages of the tournament, Argentina came back from a 3-0 loss against Scotland to draw, 3-3. In stoppage time, a late infringement led to a VAR penalty decision which was initially saved by the Scottish goalkeeper. In a shocking twist, the referee ruled that the goalkeeper moved from the line before Argentina took the penalty shot and after consulting VAR, the penalty was retaken. Nigeria was too a victim of the penalty retake after France had missed the penalty, it was judged with VAR that the Nigerian goalie had moved off the line before the kick. 

Previously, such minor infringements would have gone unnoticed, but VAR is making the enforcement of the rules of the game much stricter. While everyone would agree that the rules should be observed for fair play, some do feel that football is becoming too rigid and too technical. 

Part of the debate around the FIFA Women's World Cup was around the new rule that was responsible for dashing the dreams of both Scotland and Argentina. The new rules from the International Football Board say that a goalkeeper must always have one foot on the line during a penalty kick as opposed to the previous rule of two feet.

The big screen inside the staduim informs fans of a VAR review in consideration, after referee Milorad Mazic awards Senegal a penalty, which he then rescinds after looking at the VAR footage during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.  (June 27, 2018 - Source: Michael Steele/Getty Images Europe)

The big screen inside the staduim informs fans of a VAR review in consideration, after referee Milorad Mazic awards Senegal a penalty, which he then rescinds after looking at the VAR footage during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.

(June 27, 2018 - Source: Michael Steele/Getty Images Europe)


Do we even need VAR?

VAR is not detached from traditional refereeing —it's a sidekick to the match official, and it's not an either-or situation. Referees still have the last call in deciding whether an infringement has been made. Having video-assisted refereeing has overall reduced the number of incorrect calls and improved the accuracy of referees. The statistics still show VAR improved the decision-making accuracy in the group stages to 98% as compared to 92.5% without it. Human error in football has always been frustrating given the fact that once the referee makes a call, whether right or wrong; there was no way to check in real-time. 

A positive aspect of VAR is that it increases the transparency of the calls made by referees. They are countless allegations of dubious referees being caught in the thick of match fixing scandals that have rocked the footballing world and made us question the authenticity of the entire system. These referees were often part of a large scheme of match-fixers and betting mafias. When these match-fixing scandals come to the public's attention, it has always triggered a discussion around solutions to prevent such callous disregard of ethics by match officials. VAR can bring accountability, which has sometimes been lacking in football.  Before VAR, it was easy for referees to make dubious calls as a referee, VAR makes it more challenging to hide blatant match-fixing attempts. 

Colombia players confront referee Milorad Mazic after he awards Senegal a penalty before rescinding the decision after reviewing VAR footage during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.  (June 27, 2018 - Source: Stu Forster/Getty Images Europe)

Colombia players confront referee Milorad Mazic after he awards Senegal a penalty before rescinding the decision after reviewing VAR footage during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.

(June 27, 2018 - Source: Stu Forster/Getty Images Europe)

While the coming of VAR was quite a noble effort by the football governing bodies, the interpretation of "match-changing situations" needs to be given more attention. Referees have lost the autonomy to make decisions without leaning on the VAR to confirm each decision, leading to longer and slower games. I would argue that the biggest flaw of VAR is that it slows down the pace of the game. Games are now featuring more abrupt 2 minutes, even up to 4 minutes stop to allow the referee to review the VAR footage. Before VAR, it was rare to see a game stop as many times as has become common. Ultimately, increase in stoppage time has increased the average length of matches. In the 2018 Men's World Cup, the average stoppage time increased from 5.4 minutes to 6.4 minutes.

VAR going forward

The success of VAR depends on making some critical changes to how it's used. The Premier League will use VAR for the first time in the 2019/20 season. The Football Association has been paying close attention to the controversies surrounding VAR at the Women's World Cup in preparing for the launch of VAR in the 2019-2020 season. One thing that has come up in how the FA would like to do things differently to how we've seen VAR in previous tournaments is to reduce its interference and apply it more consistently in accordance with the laid out rules.

Despite the controversies, I would argue that VAR should stay. Fair play is becoming more of a reality owing to VAR. The FA has correctly defined the guidelines for the part that VAR will play in the Premier League. FIFA must reanalyze the interaction with VAR globally which would allow for more seamless consultations.