The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
Having resisted the use of technology for decades, football finally moved into the 21st century back in 2012, when the used of goal-line technology was approved by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). This system was implemented largely without any controversy.
But the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) - first as a trial in 2016 and then incorporated into the Laws of the Game on a permanent basis in March - has been quite the opposite. It was used in the top flight of many European leagues last season, but it is its appearance at the World Cup which has suddenly seen the debate over its use ignite, with a flurry of controversial decisions in the first round of games.
So what, exactly, is going on?
Just so we’re clear on what’s up for debate, let’s clear up exactly what it is.
The Video Assistant Referee - a former, or current referee, who sits in full kit, no less - watch the match in a remote location, surrounded by dozens of TV screens, viewing incidents from every angle available. They check for ‘clear and obvious’ errors in four areas: goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.
There are three ways this plays out.
If the VAR spots something that the referee has missed, they can tell the on-field referee to go and take a second look at a monitor located to the side of the pitch. If there is something very obvious, the referee may change the call on the advice of the VAR without looking at it. Equally, if it’s something they can sort (say, mistaken identity) without needing to look, they can deal with it on the field.
VAR cannot be used for an incident once play has restarted after being stopped - and goals can only be disallowed if VAR spots something in the attacking move which lead to it being scored; ie. you can’t go back too far.
Crucially, every goal that is scored is reviewed by the VAR for infringements.
There are more technicalities involved in what exactly constitutes attacking phases and the like, and for that I refer you to the Wikipedia page but it’s worth debating how this is actually playing out in practice, and what it means for the sport in the future.
Tune in to the analysis of virtually every game so far and you will find it dominated by VAR. Now, this is very possibly a consequence of the fact that we, in England, are not used to it, so the system is more of a novelty - and a confusion.
But there has certainly been oddities in the way it’s been used - Argentina’s Christian Pavon seemed to have been clearly fouled against Iceland in the penalty area, yet it was not spotted by the VAR. Meanwhile, Brazil complained that a push by Steven Zuber before his goal for Switzerland was not punished. Another controversial award saw France awarded a penalty after Josh Ridson’s challenge on Antoine Griezmann which the referee had initially deemed to not be a foul, but changed his mind after watching a replay - but this was in no way a ‘clear and obvious’ error, with pundits and most fans divided on whether it was a penalty or not.
Meanwhile, there’s still major criticism that people in the stadium get to watch the replays while people in the actual stadium are left in the dark.
Despite the controversies listed above, it has been generally accepted that VAR has created more ‘correct’ decisions that wrong ones.
Surely, then, VAR is a good thing?
I would disagree, based on three crucial factors.
Firstly, VAR has shown, more than ever, that football is uniquely opinion-based game. In football, there is essentially only one element that is definitively, scientifically black or white: whether a ball is over a line or not. This can be measured, and exists outside of any opinion. The implementation of goalline technology, therefore, cannot really be argued with. It’s either a goal or it’s not - move on.
However, other than this (and perhaps offside, although, again, there can be subjectivity with this), conceptually there is actually no such thing as a clear and obvious error. It does not exist. You can look at any foul, no matter how ‘blatant’, and someone could conceivably make a case to say it wasn’t one. And you could never prove that that person was wrong. You can only simply disagree with their opinion. Moreover, opinions can change entirely based on the viewing angle that you are shown. Case in point: a penalty awarded to Sweden in their game against South Korea: the first two angles looked like a perfectly good tackle with the defender’s foot touching the ball, the second two, a clear penalty. Who is to say - philosophically - which angle is more valid than the other? Now, a penalty is probably the ‘correct’ decision, since any ball touching with a foot would hold on all angles, but nonetheless, it’s not clear cut. It never is.
Even the speed of replay is a factor, especially in red card decisions - a recent study showed that slowing down footage led to more ‘correct’ decisions, but also gave a higher impression of intent, with referees more likely to give a red card from a slowed-down incident.
Of course, you can say that it’s still the referee who is making the decision - so it’s still only his opinion that counts, and nothing has altered from before. Which would indeed be the case if the only time VAR was used was when the onfield referee asked for it - but this is not the case, since the VAR can flag incidents from afar. Suddenly it’s also his or her opinion that counts. And they will miss things too - so should we have a VAR for the VAR? Where does it end?
And ‘where does it end’ is a question that can be asked of the use of VAR in general. It might be limited to certain match events at the moment, but who is to argue that incidents in previous phases of play should not also be looked at - after all, if the ball has not gone out of play in the interim, surely any event prior to a VAR call could be said to have had an impact?
Will VAR breaks become co-opted - like American Football - into potential advertising breaks in the middle of the game? Who knows, but if football is known for anything, it’s for following wherever the money is.
The second worrying strand of VAR is that of unintended consequence. Put simply, we have no idea how this will affect the way players will play the game. It could be positive - but it could be negative. The tackle is already an endangered species - now, surely, with absolutely zero margin for error - players could simply stop even attempting tackles in the penalty area. Now, equally, attackers will now be unlikely to dive, thus helping fair defenders, yet who knows which way the pendulum will ultimately swing?
Perhaps a more fundamental issue is how this will affect the likelihood of the shock. One of the great glories of football is that the underdog can frequently triumph despite not ‘deserving’ the win. But how do these victories often happen? With a large slice of luck, a few dubious calls going their way. VAR will drastically reduce the chance of these dodgy decisions - criticised by pundits yet loved by fans - contributing to a lucky win. Is this really what we want for football - a cold, stats-based game where the best side always wins?
And it’s worth also noting the implicit assumption that incorrect calls are, by definition, a bad thing for the game. They’re not - who hasn’t seen a few games over the years when one side, on the wrong end of a bad decision, have used it to fire themselves up to respond, and to react to adversity, creating classic footballing stories in the process? Are we now to be denied that?
All of the above are issues that worry me, but perhaps not definitively. I can probably live with them.
But nothing - absolutely nothing - worries me as much as my final concern over VAR.
And that relates to the fact that every goal is now reviewed.
This is a truly terrible development - because the scoring of a goal, and the milliseconds that follow it - are truly the soul, the essence, of football. Those precious few seconds of unbridled joy, where the fan can simply let all of that emotion explode out. Whatever’s been on your mind all week - all of it disappears when your team scores: there’s nothing like it.
But with VAR, suddenly, that uncontained joy is being denied us. Because we can now no longer ever truly celebrate until the VAR has done their job. You might have scored, but it could easily be taken away from you. You can only truly celebrate once the VAR has remained silent. We saw it when Diego Costa’s first goal for Spain against Portugal was referred, and it took almost a minute for it to be confirmed. Who celebrates then? It’s like celebrating a spreadsheet: you might be 1-0 up but there’s not that instant of glory.
It’s something that has bothered me for a long time about cricket; that one can never truly celebrate a wicket fully until the batsman has declined to review it. But the thrill of taking a wicket is not as great as the thrill of scoring a goal. There can be 40 wickets in a match. There is often just one goal in football. And it’s far too precious to be subjected to doubt in the name of clean, cold perfection.
It looks like VAR is here to stay: time will tell if it’s for the good, or to the detriment, of the game.