Soccer has been around for over 2,000 years and is played by millions of people worldwide. It started with a very broad set of rules that were then narrowed down to the rules we have today and are being continually revised and updated. The rules in soccer are a highly debated topic among fans, referees, and players. With input from these groups the rules are refined to make the game of soccer as perfect as possible. One of the newest and highly debated additions to the rule book is the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR). VAR has a huge impact on the game, it gives the referees the ability to go back and change a previous call they made, it also allows them to go back and give a call they missed. VAR was introduced in the early 2010’s just as an idea and was put through many practice tests. But in the 2017/2018 season VAR officially became part of two major leagues and it only become more popular since then. On the 3rd of March 2018, the International Football Association Board added VAR to the laws of the game. VAR is now used in many of the top leagues around the world, the World Cup, Champions League, and other major soccer competitions. Since VAR is relatively new to the game of soccer it is often the cause of some heated debates. Although VAR has statistically improved the game it is not perfect and requires some upgrades to help it improve. By refining and updating VAR and it’s specific rules and by better training the referees VAR can improve and become more popular among players, coaches, and fans.
What exactly is VAR? As an article in Time magazine defines it, “ VAR is essentially soccer’s instant replay system” (Gregory). In more detail Video Assistant Referee is an extra small group of referees that watch the soccer game from many angles with computers and televisions inside a room in the stadium. The VAR group is in direct contact with the referee with microphones and they can both exchange information. The job of the VAR is to watch for anything that looks suspicious and might be breaking the rules. If the VAR sees anything that catches their attention then they notify the head referee and they address the problem.
There are four main categories of possible breaking of the rules for the VAR to address a problem. The first one is goal/no goal calls: if the referee mistakenly gives a goal but there was a breaking of the rules leading to the goal or in how the goal was scored then the referee would be allowed to disallow the goal. Or if the referee disallowed a goal because of a foul but they sees that there was not actually a foul they can give the goal back. The second is penalty/no penalty: the referee can go back and change a penalty call they gave or give one that they missed. The third is if there is a direct red card (automatically kicks you out of the game) involved, the referee can go back and take back a red card they gave or give one that they missed. The last one is on cases of mistaken identity, if the referees mix up players and give the wrong player a card, the VAR would notify the referee and they would correct the mistake.
As an avid soccer fan I have been directly affected by VAR. VAR decisions have been in my teams favor and have been against them. I have felt wronged by some of the decisions made by the referee after reviewing certain calls and felt that something must change. For example during a game at the beginning of the 2019 season I was watching my team play and the referee missed a hand ball in the goalie box. The VAR noticed a potential break of the rules and notified the head referee. After he spent a decent amount of time reviewing the play he decided that there was no break in the rules and let the game continue. I felt very wronged by this call and got upset with the referee and the VAR. Through this experience and others experiences like this one I began to question the value of VAR and began to question the level of training of the referees and what should be done about these problems.
Without a doubt VAR has significantly lowered the amount of wrong calls in games. The ability to review an action from many different angles and speeds helps the referees to better see and understand what call should be made. An article on Sky Sports shows some statistics of pre VAR call accuracy and post VAR accuracy. This article shows the significant difference that VAR has made: the pre VAR call accuracy was at around 93% and post VAR call accuracy is at around 98.8%. Another reason VAR is a benefit to the game of soccer is that it adds a new entertainment aspect to the game. When the referee blows their whistle and goes to check what could be a game changing call it builds a lot of tension which makes for a more interesting and suspenseful game. In an article on the pros and cons of VAR by the South African Football Association one of the pros they wrote about was that when a referee checks an action with VAR it, “Creates drama and suspense especially with both sets of fans. The anxious wait is what adds a different dimension to the beautiful game.” Another major advantage of VAR is that it allows the offside referees (when they are not sure whether to call an off-sides or not) to wait to call a possible off-sides and instead let the game continue and then call the offside after the end of the action. As an article on the BBC sports section says the offside referees do this because, “If they flag early and the whistle goes that attack stops there and then, and if the video shows it’s a mistake, there is nothing you can do about it at that point.” So this allows for the referees to not mistakenly end a play and take away what could have been a goal.
In an article written by Carlos Lago-Peñas about the effects of VAR in elite soccer he takes research from two major leagues and compares the statistics of a pre VAR season and a post VAR season to see some of the differences that VAR has brought about. Through his research he shows that, “Overall, the VAR system does not modify the game in elite soccer …there was a significant decrease in the number of offsides, fouls and yellow cards after the implementation of the VAR … there was an increase in [the] number of minutes added to the playing time in the first half and the full game, but not in the second half” (Lago-Peñas 649). Through this research we see that although VAR affects elite soccer it does not make any significant negative changes to the game. VAR is beneficial in reducing the amount of playing time wasted on incorrect calls.
Although VAR has brought about a lot of good, many still argue that it should be removed. Some say that the amount of work that would be needed to make VAR better is too much and that it is not worth it. These people that object to VAR focus on the time that it takes away from the actual game. In the game of soccer there is only one major pause which is halfway into the game and gives both teams some time to regroup and talk about strategies. Other than that pause the game clock is always running. However, VAR takes away some of that precious game time from the players so that the referees can review plays and calls. Sometimes these reviews can take longer than the fans, players, and coaches would like. Not only does VAR take time from the game, it also disrupts the flow of the game. While the game is going and energies and tensions are rising the VAR brings all that to a full stop making everyone have to wait for the game to continue. Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi complained about VAR saying, “It takes the excitement out of football; players don’t hug each other after scoring a goal any more, instead they look straight towards the referee. It’s removing the adrenaline and my enjoyment of football.” Many argue that VAR takes away from the spontaneity of the game. In a CNN article about the effects of VAR in Champions League soccer titled “Is VAR ‘killing’ Football” we are shown many of the negative effects that VAR has brought about including, slowing the momentum of the game, and bringing more confusion than clarity. A soccer commentator commented in the CNN article about one of the first games in which VAR was used in saying that “The lack of education around the system (VAR) has led to confusion” (Darke). Darke is showing that one of the problems with VAR is that it has not been educated well to the fans and referees which in turn leads to confusion and hatred towards VAR.
Since VAR brings about so much more good than it does bad it should be given more time to develop and integrate into the game. The best way to help VAR to be widely accepted it by fixing these problems that people have commented on. Limiting the amount of decisions that VAR can interfere with could help reduce the amount of hate on VAR. One way is, VAR should not be used in judging subjective decisions but instead should only focus only judging the objective ones. An article on ways to improve VAR by Sujay Salunkhe the writer says, “Maybe limiting the use of VAR to factual decisions such as offsides and missed incidents may work better for the flow of the game without much disruption.” Another way is to give each team a set amount of times in which they can call upon VAR to review a play. Like in American football where each team can challenge a call a certain amount of times. This referral system could greatly help to make VAR feel more fair for both teams. Also by giving each review a set time limit the reviews be shorter and it would disrupt the flow of the game less. Another thing that fans do not like about VAR is that they feel removed from the game and are left very confused with what is going on. A way to improve this is to better keep the audience involved and explain to them what is going on. One solution is to let the referees be able to be in direct contact with the fans like in American football. In American football, referees tell the spectators what happened via microphone and inform them with the call they make. This can be a major improvement and could help VAR become more popular.
Another way to indirectly improve VAR is by improving the training of the referees and the techniques they use to make calls. In a study by Samuel Roy David he built a decision-making simulator to help better train the referees. The referees would run on a treadmill and watch real game footage and make calls that they see fit. Their results would be analyzed and they would be able to see when and what makes them work better and make more correct decisions. He writes that, “The new tool presents a potentially innovative approach to decision-making training, considering significant factors, such as physical load and contextual factors” (Roy David). Through this simulator the referees can better understand what works for them when making in game decisions and then apply what they learned to live games.
In another article by Javier Mallo he studies how the positioning of the referees affects their ability to make the right decisions. The study tested at which angles and distances the referees make the most and least mistakes in their in game calls. Through the study they show that the referees need more training from different angles and distances. The referees need to be able to adapt in the game and be able to make difficult decisions. In these three studies they show how the referees can be better trained and what works best for them. They also show that there is an improvement in the game through these training sessions and tests and they show that the problem of VAR can be addressed by improving the referees.
In another article by Ulas Gulec, he explores a new training technique. Essentially, this technique uses virtual reality technology to help the referees feel like they are in a real life game situation. They built a virtual stadium and the atmosphere and feel of a real life stadium. They also created virtual fans just to top it off. Then the referees just trained normally by looking at different simulations and giving the calls they saw fit and getting feedback on how well they did. The study showed that the virtual training environment helps much more in the training of the referees and helps them improve in their ability to make better calls much more than a regular training system. In another article by Jochim Spitz he discusses the impact of slow motion video speed on the decision making process of soccer referees. In the experiment they had a group of referees assess video clips from an in game perspective with slow motion and also with real time speed. The video clips included instances with offsides, fouls and other disciplinary decision situations. Then they analyzed the different results and saw that of course the referees were able to make more accurate calls in slow motion rather than in regular speed. The tests helped the referees better understand the different situations and what decisions to make in these situations. Then they can take what they learned and apply it to similar in game situations. Through these many different training techniques the referees can improve and use VAR the best way possible.
VAR makes the game of soccer more enjoyable with less mistakes and cheating. Since VAR is still new it has not fully integrated into the game it receives a lot of criticism. VAR only needs more time and refinement to become a more natural and accepted part of the game. Through the suggestions above this goal can be achieved and the game of soccer can be more enjoyable for the players, coaches, and fans.