VAR isn’t perfect- but it’s a hugely positive step forward for football

This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and following the fracas which unfolded last night in the aftermath of Spain vs Morocco and Iran vs Portugal surrounding the use of VAR in both games, now seems like the ideal opportunity to discuss my thoughts on the matter.

At this juncture, I would strongly argue that overall, the implementation of VAR at the 2018 World Cup has been a significant net benefit for the tournament thus far. Up until last night’s events, I think public opinion would generally tend to agree that it has been a positive thing and has been used in a much more efficient and effective manner than was the case with its implementation in the FA Cup last season.

As far as I can count- and I have probably missed a few incidents- there have been 12 instances in this World Cup to date where VAR has been used by the referee to either award a penalty, to overturn a penalty decision, to award a goal or to disallow a goal. I have listed the incidents below:

France penalty vs Australia (scored): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Peru penalty vs Denmark (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Sweden penalty vs South Korea (scored): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Iran goal vs Spain, disallowed for offside

Egypt penalty vs Russia (scored): awarded for a foul inside the box, after the referee had initially deemed it to have taken place outside the box

Australia penalty vs Denmark (scored): awarded for handball which the referee originally did not give

Brazil penalty vs Costa Rica overturned for diving, after the referee had originally given a foul

Iceland penalty vs Nigeria (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Portugal penalty vs Iran (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Spain goal vs Morocco allowed, after it had been initially ruled out for offside

Iran penalty vs Portugal (scored): awarded for a handball which the referee initially did not give

Now, from a personal perspective, having watched all of these incidents, I would say that only the Iran penalty awarded for handball against Portugal was an incorrect decision after the use of VAR.

Others might make a case for other incidents being less clear cut, but I would say in 11/12 of these cases, the correct decision was made after the referee had used VAR.

That’s roughly a 92% success rate, by my estimations, on decisions which the referee had initially got wrong, and was able to correct by consulting with VAR.

Of course, there have also been a handful incidents where VAR has missed fairly obvious fouls inside the box, most notably with Tunisia’s manhandling of Harry Kane in which England should plausibly have been awarded two penalties on the night, neither of which went to VAR review.

It is not perfect, and does not result in 100% refereeing accuracy. That is impossible, and the claim that VAR is somehow meant to eradicate all errors and controversy from the sport is absurd. That was never the purpose of VAR, and nor will it ever be, such is the nature of football. There will always be an element of controversy, to some extent.

Here, I’ll tackle some of the common issues and debates around VAR.

1. VAR doesn’t make any decisions- it is a tool to assist referees in making a more informed judgement.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception around VAR, and one which, bafflingly, many pundits and commentators continue to perpetuate and therefore misinform TV audiences, with false narratives such as “VAR has given a penalty”.

VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee system- it is not an autonomous piece of machinery and it has no power to make any kind of decision on any given incident.

VAR is comprised of a team of officials- in this case based in Moscow- who watch the entire match from dozens of different angles and will communicate with the on-pitch referee regarding an incident where they believe a clear and obvious error has been made, which needs to be reviewed.

The referee can then halt play, before re-watching the incident on a monitor on the side lines, after which he can either stand by his original decision, or change his mind having obtained new information. That’s all VAR is- a facility which enables referees to view more replays before making a decision, rather than relying on a snap judgement which is often incorrect.

That does not mean they will necessarily make the right call- as seen with the Portuguese ‘handball’ vs Iran- as the final decision is a subjective one made by the referee. VAR only serves to let the referee make a better-informed judgement.

2. VAR disrupts the flow of the game- but it’s for good reason

Of course, VAR disrupts the flow of the game by stopping play to review an incident, but it does so in order to allow referees a much better chance to make a correct call which could end up defining the match.

It’s a worthy and necessary use of time- unlike diving, and surrounding the referee with complaints- and for the most part in this World Cup, the delay caused by the referee consulting VAR has usually only been around 15-30 seconds and the efficiency of the system will only improve as it becomes more mainstreamed within the sport.

Refereeing without VAR still disrupts the flow of the game regardless, as referees consult with the linesman about a penalty incident which they are unable to review on a monitor (see the lengthy stoppage at the end of Liverpool’s 2-2 draw vs Tottenham at Anfield last season).

There is a legitimate concern around the passage of play between the incident and the decision to consult VAR- for example, when Sweden were retrospectively awarded a penalty against South Korea, the referee had to stop a South Korean counter-attack to pause play and review the incident.

What happens, in that instance, if South Korea score before the referee decides to give the Sweden penalty? That situation hasn’t happened yet, but is something which needs to be looked at as VAR becomes more widely implemented.

3. Just because VAR doesn’t get everything 100% correct, doesn’t mean it should be abandoned

VAR was never suggested as something which could completely eradicate controversy in football and ensure that no mistakes are ever made. It’s a false narrative invented by those who dislike VAR, and one which doesn’t make much sense at all.

As already discussed, VAR can never get anything wrong or right per se- it can only assist the referee in making a final decision after viewing additional replays. Mistakes can still be made, but that is the fault of the referee’s judgement, rather than the VAR system itself.

I would suggest that VAR has enabled referees to overturn at least 10 decisions they had initially got wrong in this World Cup, and in two cases (the Denmark handball vs Australia, and the Portugal handball vs Iran), the referee has still made a pretty questionable call.

That’s more an issue relating to the lack of clarity around the handball rule, however, than an inherent issue with VAR, which, once more, only serves to let referees make better-informed decisions (which they might still get wrong, but much more often than not they get correct).

Saying that VAR is ‘useless’ or ‘nonsense’ just because some incorrect decisions are still made- despite the vast majority it allows referees to get correct- is almost like saying CCTV should be abandoned because crimes are still committed and it takes too long to review the footage.

It is not 100% error-proof, and it never claimed to be so. The net benefit, in terms of decision-making, still makes VAR a hugely positive addition to football based on the evidence from this tournament so far.

4. VAR sanitizes the game and removes an element of debate and excitement… or does it?

This was a common argument about VAR before the World Cup- that introducing technology to reduce the likelihood of human error reduces the debate and discussion which has long been a part of football due to controversy around refereeing decisions.

Personally, I find this argument absurd in any case, as having bad refereeing decisions influence games just so people have something to talk about at the pub afterwards is hardly a solid case against VAR.

The great irony is, of course, that VAR has, if anything, made this World Cup even more exciting and controversial, rather than sanitizing football and reducing the scope for debate.

As I have outlined, it has got the vast majority of decisions correct, and the tension and anticipation as the referee pauses the game for a short amount of time to review an incident before (usually) overturning his original incorrect decision has actually added something quite enjoyable and dramatic to the experience- somewhat akin to the build up of anticipation as a decision is reviewed with Hawk Eye technology in tennis.

5. VAR is still in the very early stages of its evolution- it requires patience

The current version of VAR is far from perfect and as discussed, there is plenty of scope for the system to be tweaked and improved in the future, before it (hopefully) rolls out across all of Europe’s major leagues (it is already in use in Serie A).

The most obvious areas for improvement are in reducing the time frame required to make the decision, and to clear up exactly which incidents it can and should be used on.

There is also scope to make it clearer to fans inside the stadium what is happening, to avoid that element of confusion when no one is quite sure what is going on, and there needs to be a clear protocol for what happens if, for instance, there is a goal or another significant incident during the passage of play between an incident and the referee’s decision to stop play to review the incident on the recommendation of VAR.

I am firmly of the belief that allowing referees to make better-informed judgement calls on incidents which define games of football is absolutely a hugely positive step forward for the sport and will significantly improve the accuracy of how football is refereed in the future.

What is required is patience and balanced debate, rather than outright, poorly-reasoned dismissal of VAR as ‘nonsense’, just because people are highly sceptical about it and, understandably, uncomfortable about the idea of quite a significant change to the way the sport is officiated.

One cannot continually get frustrated and upset about referees making poor decisions which influence the outcomes of games, while also being so vehemently opposed to the introduction of technology which reduces the likelihood of incompetent refereeing influencing results.

It has its issues, and it is far from perfect, but already, this World Cup has shown how VAR can drastically reduce the scope for human error in deciding games of football by giving referees the information to make more informed decisions. That can only be a very good thing.

Hector Bellerin and the Arsenal Fan TV fiasco

Over the past couple of days, there has been widespread attention across social media regarding comments made by Hector Bellerin about Arsenal Fan TV during a speech he gave at the Oxford Union last month. Although I am not an Arsenal supporter, I was fortunate enough to be there in person at the talk, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the reaction which has seen Bellerin come in for a hefty amount of criticism in recent days (much of which has come from those involved with the AFTV channel).

For those not aware, the Oxford Union is a debating society which invites speakers from all kinds of different backgrounds to either take part in a debate (usually political), or to give a talk about their career and personal interests, as Bellerin did. The Union is separate from the University of Oxford, although the vast majority of its membership is from the university.

There have been many high-profile football speakers in recent years, including Rio Ferdinand, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Saar. Bellerin is unusual in this context, in that it is very rare for a current professional footballer to speak at these events- most likely because any vaguely controversial opinions they might share will quickly be pounced upon and plastered all over the internet, as has happened with Bellerin over the past week.

It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that a scheduled talk by Mesut Özil this month has recently been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation has not been made public, but it seems likely that it may well be in response to the recent reaction to Bellerin’s visit. Özil is an even higher-profile figure than Bellerin and it is easy to imagine the fallout should he have made any controversial comments of note.

The majority of the time, when interviewed in the public domain- such as the post-match interviews on Sky Sports and BT Sports- players are well versed in delivering bland, pre-programmed responses such that they will avoid criticism and scrutiny around their choice of words. Very rarely will a player offer their own in-depth opinions or analysis after a game, as they will be trained to deliver the usual platitudes such as “we’ll have to work on this in training next week”, “I’m happy to have scored, but the team’s victory comes first”, or “we just take each game as it comes” etc.

Talks at the Oxford Union, by contrast, offer a platform for footballers to speak openly about a range of issues to an audience of several hundred young people, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. They will be asked a series of questions in an interview format to begin with, ranging from their experiences within the sport, to more general issues beyond the footballing sphere, before audience members are invited to ask their own questions.

When Bellerin was asked about his opinions on Arsenal Fan TV, this was a question raised by an audience member, to which he responded that he feels it is “really wrong” for an enterprise to be profiting from the club’s failures, thus questioning whether such people can really claim to be fans.

He also went on to say that people are perfectly entitled to make money as they wish, and that he only values criticism coming from his coaches, but that he is aware of the highly reactionary and often highly critical nature of Arsenal Fan TV.

The first thing to say, is that Bellerin is correct in a sense. Arsenal Fan TV does attract the majority of its viewership when Arsenal lose. Fans from other clubs will quickly flock to watch the videos every time Arsenal suffer a poor result to watch a variety of notorious figures vent their frustrations, often in an amusing manner, in front of a camera.

Arsenal Fan TV does also make money from this, of course, although the vast majority of contributors are not paid to speak on the videos. It is a platform which allows fans to have a voice as an alternative to mainstream media, and is inherently more emotive and strongly opinionated than traditional forms of football coverage.

Where I, and many others, disagree with Bellerin, is when he suggests it’s difficult to call someone a fan if they partake in such a platform which benefits financially when Arsenal underperform. Those who appear on Arsenal Fan TV- and other fan TV channels- are, for the most part, loyal and committed supporters who are fully entitled to give their opinion on the club to which they devote so much time and money.

Arsenal Fan TV also features heavy praise for players and their performances when the team wins, of course.

Bellerin, however, is entitled to give his own opinion in the same way that fans can openly and heavily criticise his performances. From his perspective, as a professional footballer, he is far less likely to be made aware of clips when supporters praise him and the team, than he is when he performs poorly and the team loses.

His view, therefore, is not fully informed and is heavily shaped by the negative side of Arsenal Fan TV and he most likely sees it purely as a source of wild, over-reactive criticism and even abuse, which he admitted he will often be sent clips of after a bad performance.

What I find most interesting and disappointing, though, is the manner in which a small comment he made as part of a 40-minute talk, is seized upon in a way which brands him as rude, disrespectful and detached from supporters. Throughout his talk, Bellerin covered a whole range of topics, ranging from mental health (i.e. how difficult would it be for a high-profile professional footballer to reveal they suffered from depression), a discussion of racism in football (with reference to the abuse suffered by Liverpool youngster, Rhian Brewster, with whom he shares an agency), his charity work (including raising funds for the victims of the Grenfell disaster) and the Catalan independence movement.

He came across as a thoroughly intelligent and well-spoken individual who clearly has an enormous amount of humilty and awareness of his fortunate position in society, speaking with honesty and intellect about topics far beyond his own career in the game.

I was also able to meet Bellerin in person before the talk, and he was both thoroughly engaged and laid back- a very easy person to get along with and not remotely pretentious or disinterested, as some footballers can come across.

I asked him about his toughest opponents in the Premier League this season (Richarlison was his answer), his thoughts on Spain’s chances in the World Cup (he said to keep an eye out for Isco as the key player of the new generation) and his experience of facing Mo Salah twice this season, to which he emphatically stated that the Egyptian is the signing of the season.

It is reflective of a wider scepticism towards footballers in general- often characterised as greedy and detached from supporters- that Bellerin has been the target of such criticism for what was a tiny proportion of his talk, while the rest- some of which was thoroughly insightful on some really important issues- is hardly even touched upon and discarded as irrelevant, while fans project their anger in his direction, ignoring the entirety of the wider context in which he delivered such comments (which, ultimately, was just an honest opinion for which he was asked to give).