Should the Human Element Be Removed from VAR?

“Baldomero Toledo checks VAR – Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City” by SounderBruce (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology was introduced to the English Premier League and other European soccer leagues, few could have predicted how controversial it would become. It was meant to spell the end of contentious decisions, but if anything, it has exacerbated the situation and dulled the match-going experience. The Sports Techie community blog has been a supporter of VAR since before its inception in the EPL and understands how it used today is not how it will be used in the future because most all technology systems are improved with tweaks. VAR is no different. Better usage rules, more standardization of technologies and improving the human component are what needs upgrading with VAR in professional football.

Fine margins

Ironically, one of the main concerns the fans have with the system is the level of accuracy that it attempts to apply. Before VAR, fans would bemoan a goal that was allowed or disallowed for being a few centimeters offside if the decision went against their own team. VAR sought to eliminate this issue by creating a standard rule that would be applied to all offside calls. Technology would be used to mark the offside line, and the attacking player would be deemed onside of offside – no matter the margin.

There have been suggestions that there is a margin for error in the VAR system due to the frame rate of the video recording. However, if the same system is applied to every decision, then it should be fairer and more accurate than using the naked eye. With so much at stake in professional soccer and with high amounts of money wagered on the game through, you would expect that more accurate decisions would be welcome.

However, it soon became clear that ruling out a goal because a player is a couple of centimeters offside after making fans wait two or three minutes for a decision does not go down well. And this is the aspect of VAR that has proved to be one of the most controversial. Along with the lack of consistency about key decisions in the penalty area.

The hope is that by the time the next World Cup kicks off in 2022, VAR will be a much more streamlined and reliable system. The last tournament was littered with controversial moments, including the decision not to award a penalty to Argentina when Cristian Pavón was fouled in the box in the draw against Iceland. If Argentina had won that game it could have changed the course of their tournament. The Albiceleste will be hoping for better officiating when they head to Qatar in 2022 – they are currently priced at 12/1 with bet365 in the betting markets.

VAR – A tweak to the system

A tweak to the system

As a result, there have been discussions about moving the line to measure if any part of the attacking player is onside rather than offside when the ball is played. Tweaking the rule to build in some tolerance would allow the player to be almost a full-body width offside, but if they had a foot or a toe in an onside position, they would still be classed as onside. There would need to be daylight (as pundits are fond of saying) between the attacker and defender for offside to be given.

Even if this change is made, there is still the issue of the long pause while the decision is made that mutes goal celebrations. The people behind the technology need to improve the system so the calculations are made automatically and almost instantly, like goal-line technology. Then, when a goal is scored, the referee could glance at his watch and give the decision. It would mean that assistant referees would no longer have to flag for offside incidents, and those sat in the VAR room would not have to fiddle around with the system to see if a player’s armpit is offside.

Human Soccer Ref

Removing the human element and giving a decision within seconds could make it clear to fans that the benefit always sits with the attacking player. This should also increase the average number of goals scored in the leagues where it is used.

Put the referee back in control

For all other controversial decisions, such as handballs and fouls resulting in penalties, the final decision should be made by the on-field referee. The VAR officials can alert them if they think they have missed an incident or made the wrong call, but the referee must then be allowed the opportunity to consult the video screen before confirming or overruling a decision. Once again, this removes further human decision-making from the process and leaves the referee in full control.

Sports Techie, with just a couple of tweaks, VAR could achieve its goal of improving the percentage of correct decisions but without detracting from the match-going experience for fans.

Either way, VAR is here to stay.

Play on.

See you later sportstechie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!

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