VAR is here to stay, but let’s get it right

The Australian football community has never been as divided as it is now. But there is one issue that has united the masses: the introduction of Video Assisted Referees (VAR).

A-League Rd 8 - Melbourne v Perth

Referee Daniel Elder checks a video review during the round eight A-League match between Melbourne City and Perth Glory. Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

Oh boy. What an unqualified disaster this has been. Excitement at being a global leader has morphed into a realisation that the A-League is an experimental guinea pig. 

Not only have decisions taken too long to make but they’ve often returned dubious calls. Even with slow-motion replays, we often disagree with the referee. 

Unfortunately, the issue of VAR has now developed a life of its own. We aren’t debating the decisions in any greater detail (that’s been going on for all eternity) but the process. And the process is so obviously flawed.

Outwardly, the FFA are trying to keep a brave face but inwardly they are deeply concerned. They encouraged referees to extend the injury time allowances – rightfully – this season in an effort to get more game time, only to have VAR make a mockery of the clock. At this rate, 120 minutes won’t be the exclusive domain of extra time. 

Call me old-fashioned, but in my ideal world, I’d rather not have VAR. The referees are close enough to the action and the linesmen usually get it right. 

“Don’t make it clinical, don’t get rid of the romance, don’t get rid of the things that make the game,” said Perth coach Kenny Lowe after his side actually benefited from VAR in Friday’s 3-1 win over Melbourne City. “You want talking points, you don’t want it sterile and at the moment, I don’t think it’s clinical enough”.

His opposite number, Warren Joyce admitted it was “plain to see the problems” with the technology. 

Then social media did what social media does: calling for the instant dismissal of VAR. My immediate emotion wasn’t far from that of City forward Stefan Mauk: “This is turning into a joke now! Get rid of it before it ruins more games.” 

But upon reflection, such a reaction does not cut it in the new age. Not when there’s billions of dollars in this industry, much of its circulation determined by wins and losses – and thereby fine margins.

It’s 2017, not 1967, and no matter how much we’d all love to indulge in past ways, it’s no longer appropriate. This is not a battle that can be won by purists. The pragmatists have the upper hand. 

And as much as we’re going bananas here in Australia about VAR’s incursion into our beautiful game, the inverse is happening elsewhere. Barcelona were denied victory against Valencia over the weekend when a Leo Messi strike crossed the line but was ruled out. 

“Messi denied by La Liga's lack of technology,” screamed The Standard on Monday morning. Over on ESPN: “La Liga can’t introduce VAR quickly enough.”


Barcelona defender Sergio Busquets fumed: “[La Liga] is the best league in the world and it deserves the best technology. The goal was over the line, but neither the referee nor the assistant saw it.” 

Ultimately, as much as it pains me to say it, this is the clinching argument. Incorrectly calling key moments like this is no longer acceptable. FIFA president Gianni Infantino – a staunch advocate of VAR at the 2018 World Cup – admitted as much last month. 

So where to from here? Most other sports that have introduced video replays for officiating have endured their own battles (none more than rugby league and their “bunker”) but most have cut the review time right down.

The sports which adapted best relied largely upon decisions of binary outcomes (in or out of play) and those sports which had natural breaks. 

Football’s seamless flow already makes it an uncomfortable bedfellow with VAR. While goal-line technology was an obvious winner, decisions over penalties, for example, have often been shrouded in ambiguity, killing the match’s tempo. 

The decision-making process has to be faster. It should never take more than a minute from incident to outcome. Ideally, it should be done inside 30 seconds. One or two angles should reveal all. 

And there doesn’t have to be a conclusive answer when it’s a line-ball call – doubt alone is not enough for a conviction. That’s where Kenny Lowe and his mates will still get to have their arguments, VAR or no VAR. 

Ultimately, technology’s job is to bend to the sport, not the other way round. While we're all still eagerly waiting for that day to arrive, whether we like it or not, the video assistant isn't going anywhere.

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5 min read
Published 27 November 2017 at 1:39pm
By Sebastian Hassett