It’s long been stated that referees in soccer need technology to help them get decisions right; it’s a topic that always rears it’s head after a high profile error – Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany in the last 16 tie of the 2010 World Cup is one that stands out as a goal that never was. Goal-line technology (GLT) was adopted and what a glowing success it has been. Unfortunately, it’s not only goal line decisions that cause debate and the hunger for more technology to follow gathered momentum and gradually different soccer authorities have gone live with Video Assistant Referees (VAR for short). The Sports Techie community blog is a strong supporter of VAR sports tech. Humans watching the video are changing the course of sports history, not the sports tech.
The technology was used in the world’s most prestigious soccer tournament – the World Cup, which was held in Russia – last year, and whilst there were a few doubters, it was near impossible to argue that the whole affair didn’t deliver a sensational watch. A big part of the argument against VAR is the fact people believe it will ruin the spectacle that is elite soccer.
What I saw during the WC was VAR used early on, time-and-time again through the early rounds and it began to create a positive buzz. Then, as the knockout stage began, the whole process slowed down and officials stopped going to VAR as much as earlier in the tournament. The fact that VAR was used to determine a Champions League loser out quarter final match is a step in the right direction setting the stage for it’s possible proper use in the semifinals and final.
It’s probably fair to say there are some issues that need to be ironed out, particularly around the time it takes to make decisions, however, if the biggest tournament in the world can use it, then the biggest leagues should follow suit and next year, arguably the most famous football (or soccer) league – the English Premier League – will introduce it into all their fixtures.
VAR has been used by the English FA during some of their knockout cup competitions but the best advert for VAR – and what it can add to a match – was on display on Wednesday night during an enthralling Champions League Quarters second leg between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, who held a 1-0 aggregate lead at kick off. The game burst into life as the two sides shared five goals – City netting three – in a blistering opening but it wasn’t until the second half that the technology played its part.
Sergio Aguero thundered a drive beyond Hugo Lloris to put Manchester City ahead on aggregate and the home fans were thrilled. However, in the 73rd minute Fernando Llorente bundled the ball over the line from a Spurs corner. The referee, Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir, trotted over to the touchline to carry out his review following a suspicion of handball had been flagged by his colleagues back in the VAR control center. In the revising, refs could spot that the handball was actually not Llorente’s, but Kyle Walker’s, City fullback, so due to advantage rule the goal was correctly awarded.
City would have to score again. Tottenham were heading through on away goals and then, in injury time – bang – Raheem Sterling turns the ball in to claim his hat-trick and send Man City through; Spurs stunned, the City players, coaching staff and fans are delirious and neutrals across the globe are in awe of what has been an incredible match. City are through to the Semi-Final – or are they? A VAR check is in progress. Aguero was, allegedly, offside during the build-up, the goal is chalked off and Spurs go marching through despite losing 4-3 on the night, due to the away goals rule.
If you are unaware of soccer rules, you might believe it is madness to take away a goal for such a millimetric offside. Nonetheless, just like with the hawkeye in tennis, or the photo finishes in horse racing, precision is now demanded. Scepticism has been rife due to taking the drama out of the game but the rollercoaster it generated in that two minutes last night had soccer fans, players and legends around the world gripped. The conflicting sight of Pep Guardiola sinking to his knees and Mauricio Pochettino’s joy following the reversal was the personification of a picture telling a thousand words.
The scope of VAR is to ensure ‘clear and obvious’ errors are rectified and that’s an area where development is needed – although that’s perhaps on governing bodies to improve rather than the technology itself; to date VAR is proving a huge success in reversing definitive errors such as offsides and cases of mistaken identity.
Still, there is a huge grey area around decisions that require an opinion to be formed, for example the awarding of a penalty or handball, and so it proved with Llorente’s decisive goal as Guardiola felt it could have been ruled out from an alternative angle and by a different referee. Football refereeing will continue to be utterly subjective and no matter how much technology is introduced the controversy won’t vanish. For now, let’s not get hooked on the smaller details and just embrace a technology that will undoubtedly improve over time and, in the meantime, rest easy in the knowledge that VAR or not, we’ll always love soccer.
Sports Techie, face it, the New Orleans Saints have the worst non-call, non-reviewable play of all-time, in any sport. The obvious blown call gets reserved and the Saints not the Rams come here to Atlanta to take on the Patriots for the Super Bowl. What did the NFL do about it. The owners actually listened to what all 32 coaches wanted which was a way to review these types of calls. Even though it is a one-year trial, good for them and us.
Understand that technology will improve over time and so will the VAR process. The question about interpretation of the video is now the scapegoat because the technology does what it does. Sure another angle, more cameras and better sports technology might uncover an angle not yet seen or an infraction hidden by the grouping of players but bad refs in the review booth or on the field as head officials are as common as a cold.
The real-deal is this, when thousands if not millions of fans see instant replay from multiple angles, in super slo-motion with the ability to zoom in, pan and till the video until something pops that was not viewable by the human eye, federations, associations and professional sport leagues better do all they can to attempt to match the broadcast technology. Who they put in the replay room is where improved is needed, yesterday.
One way to evolve this is to make the VAR refs in football and soccer take responsibility for their interpretations and face the media after the game is over in a press conference. It puts a human face to the person responsible for the technology-driven call and it also gives the fans, players, coaches, owners, and everyone else, an opportunity to see this person in full light, just like the athletes and coaches. After all, refs are the third team. If he or she is confident in their decision or decisions, most people will people able to somewhat tell, however, should the official or officials come across as clueless, we know the error may be in the person reviewing the video.
Either way, VAR is coming to the Premier League and Champions League Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir has half the Spurs fans loving him and the other half of Man City fans despising him.
VAR hasn’t changed that fact at all.
See ya later sportstechie in Seattle, Atlanta and around the world!
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