In Texas, football only means one thing: gridiron. So when I was travelling around the land of Friday Night Lights, I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch a game. The noise and excitement of the Bobcats Stadium was everything I hoped for … for all of 10 minutes. American Football is pure excitement, when the game is actually happening. But most of the time is spent waiting while the teams line up for the next play. Most of the time, you’re watching nothing at all.
This summer, on the other side of the world, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup took place in South Korea. The use of video assistant referees is being tested at the tournament before it gets rolled out around the world. VARs were also used at last year’s Club World Cup in Japan, and while it may be a coincidence that these two trials took place in such geographical proximity, it isn’t a surprise.
AFC nations have shown a keen interest in using the technology. Australia’s A-League has already started using VAR – to mixed reactions by the local media. The K-League had planned to introduce the system in Korea in July, midway through the current season, until a series of highly publicised refereeing blunders made league officials push the start date forward a month.
I got my first taste of video assistant referees on the opening weekend of the Under-20 World Cup in Jeonju. During England’s group stage match with Argentina, Lautaro Martínez appeared to get the better of England’s Fikayo Tomori during a tussle on the right wing, a few yards away from the linesman. Martínez dribbled off with the ball and earned a corner for Argentina, while Tomori was still lying on the floor, clutching his head.
At this point, the referee stopped the game for what felt like an age, before signalling that he had consulted with the video room and issuing the Argentine player with a straight red card for violent conduct. After watching the incident myself, Martínez’s elbow did connect with Tomori’s face but it didn’t look deliberate, and I could understand the Argentine’s protests at the decision.
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A far more contentious call came in Uruguay’s match with Italy, where Joaquín Ardaiz had a great chance to score but could only direct his shot at Italy’s goalkeeper. Italy quickly counter-attacked, but while the ball was at the other end, the referee pulled the game back and awarded a penalty to Uruguay; Ardaiz was judged to have been fouled while attempting his shot, something that no Uruguay player protested about at the time and what looks on camera like an extremely weak call for a penalty. Italy may feel like justice was done when their goalkeeper saved the resulting spot-kick, although they still went on to lose the match 1-0.
Fans of the VAR system claim that it will help reduce referee errors, and of course that is true. But it can’t eliminate every single error from the game, nor should it. Mistakes are part of the game, just ask Fikayo Tomori, who won’t mind you watching videos of him being elbowed in the face, but would probably prefer it if you skipped the highlights of England’s following match, where he scored a bizarre own-goal from close to the halfway-line.
Mistakes are what supporters debate in the pub or on radio phone-ins after the match; they add flavour to the game, even if it is infuriating when the mistake costs your team the match. Although fans are loath to admit it, moaning about the referee and all of his errors is part of the game too. More than just a robotic umpire, the referee also plays the roles of stooge and pantomime villain – a vital part of the drama of football.
Most football fans would still be happy if the referee’s calls were a little more accurate. But what they really hate is when the referee is the centre of attention, when the game is about him, rather than the two competing teams. Referees are meant to go unnoticed, and to do a perfect job is to be invisible. FIFA seem to disagree with this statement.
Take the refereeing innovation that paved the way for VARs: goal-line technology. This is something that could easily be completely invisible, a buzz in the referee’s pocket or a word in the ear so that the referee knows that the ball has crossed the line. But no, fans watching on TV are repeatedly subjected to hearing the phrase ‘Goal-Line Technology’, a rather grandiose term for what is in effect a glorified burglar alarm.
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The phrase is always accompanied by several cheap computer graphics showing everybody what they already knew, that the ball didn’t cross the line. In a sense, these graphics are used to help justify goal-line technology, to prove that it works and remind us of its presence. With Martínez’s red card, it felt a little bit like that’s how VAR was being used. After the decision to use it, could the video referee really have given just a yellow card or a free-kick to England? The use of the video assistant somewhat forced the referee’s hand towards his top pocket.
When VAR is unnoticed, it is great. When Costa Rica had a goal ruled out for offside in their under-20 knockout match against England, the use of VAR was quick, efficient, and didn’t lead to a noticeable break in play. This kind of use is something that nobody has a problem with. The problem is when it is intrusive, with referees forcing fans to wait for ages to hear what decision has been taken, in some cases, like with Uruguay’s penalty, even hauling the game back to a prior incident. If Italy had scored from their counter-attack, can you imagine their appeals?
FIFA claim that VAR will only be used for ‘clear errors in match-changing situations’, but how long will it be before mission creep kicks in? In all my time watching and playing football, I’ve never experienced a corner-kick which has been non-contact – defenders are always trying to keep hold of their man and attackers trying to push off their marker. Every single corner could result in a penalty, every goal scored from one chalked off by a foul, if one looks hard enough.
Testing VAR at an under-20 event is one thing; referees aren’t having their every move analysed on social media, they aren’t facing death threats for a wrong decision. The real test for the technology will be when it faces the perfect storm of a huge match – a hostile crowd and cynical players. Under those circumstances, the more cowardly referees would certainly wilt under pressure and be tempted to use the VAR system liberally in order to save their own skin.
It would be great if video referees were barely used, kept as a back-up to right obvious wrongs, but the system also contains within it the potential to ruin football. To turn a trip to St Mary’s into my trip to San Marcos, Texas, where I felt like I was standing there watching nothing at all.
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Despite this risk, most media coverage of the VAR system has been full of sycophantic praise, with the dangers of the system not being fully explored. But when the bigwigs at FIFA, a word almost synonymous with corruption, say that it will be used sparingly, can we really trust them? This is, after all, an organisation who, despite supposedly being custodians of the game, seems more interested in lining its executives’ pockets and those of its corporate sponsors.
Even small tournaments like the Under-20 World Cup lead to compromises by their hosts. Jeonbuk Motors, one of Korea’s biggest clubs, were evicted from their stadium for almost half a season so that their ground, which hosted England’s match with Argentina, could match FIFA’s high standards. These standards didn’t improve the experience for regular supporters, in case you were wondering – there were still lengthy queues for refreshments with only half the kiosks being open.
Another of Korea’s domestic teams, Jeju United, had to play an Asian Champions League match against Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds at their almost-empty back-up stadium at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon so that their home ground could be used for Zambia versus Iran. When it comes to the big tournaments, I barely have to list how FIFA makes the host nation suffer.
FIFA is driven by money and it wouldn’t be a surprise if their enthusiasm for VARs isn’t driven, at least partially, by the potential of advertising the latest model of car to an audience, captive while waiting a conveniently long time for the referee to award someone a penalty in the 2018 World Cup final.
Football has become big business nowadays and I’m sure some people, the kind of people who never go to a live game, and who will never sit through video-checked decision after video-checked decision, will say that VAR is necessary to help prevent the kind of errors that cost a club a million quid (small change for some owners). But these people have forgotten the essence of football: that it is a game that is meant to be enjoyed
By Steve Price @kleaguefootball