VAR (Video Assistant Referees) are finally being implemented after decades – at least in Italy’s late-night TV review shows – of complaints and demands. The idea was greeted with declarations that it’d end the Juventus hegemony in Serie A, suddenly resolve all protests and fix a broken game. That was before people saw it in action. Now they’re starting to realise what I’d warned for a while: this is going to make things even worse.
I am not against the idea of using technology in football, as goal-line sensors have been a Godsend, nor do I think it inappropriate to interrupt the game when needed to get a closer look at a decision. I simply believe that the fundamental lack of trust within Italian football will only be exacerbated by VAR.
The TV programmes that cover calcio in Italy are hours of shouting matches where the same footage can be viewed from 10 different angles at five speeds, still nobody can agree on anything about the incident other than the referee was incompetent. At least then the official had the ‘benefit’ of only seeing it once in real time, critics had to at minimum pretend they could forgive him an error. Once the ref sees the same footage we do and comes to perhaps a different decision than the one we would’ve chosen, what then? All we are left with is: ‘well CLEARLY he must be biased.’ No excuses. I'm just waiting for the first person to bring it up in Parliament, citing it as reason for sportsbook or bookies apps to be investigated.
You’d think we would’ve learned by now that most incidents in football are not cut and dry. One man’s foul is another man’s tough but fair tackle. The rules on handball and how to judge if it was voluntary are vague at the absolute best, positively muddled at the worst. Even offside isn’t as clear as it used to be, now that strikers are supposed to be given the benefit of the doubt and interfering with play can be up to interpretation. There are very few incidents where you can say: the referee undoubtedly got that wrong.
VAR was used in the Confederations Cup and Under-20 World Cup, both with frankly painful results. Famously in the semi-final, Chile were denied a stonewall penalty against Portugal, even with the use of technology it was designed to catch. Germany won the Final despite Gonzalo Jara avoiding a red card for elbowing Timo Werner in the chin. Serbian referee Milorad Mazic viewed the footage and opted for a yellow card, which was the only thing you can’t really give in those circumstances. Either it was voluntary and a red card offence or it wasn’t and warranted no action. A booking on an elbow is a refereeing shrug, what you do when you’re hedging your bets and didn’t’ see it clearly.
Germany and Chile let these issues pass with remarkable aplomb, partly because it’s the Confederations Cup and therefore not that important. Good luck getting such calm reactions in a Serie A match. There will be bedlam, all the players will either crowd round the monitors when there’s a dubious incident or look up at the large screens in the stadium, and they’ll all have an opinion to share.
The Confederations Cup also showed us the rules on implementing VAR are very vague. Some incidents weren’t evaluated because the players didn’t call for VAR, assuming the officials behind the monitor would do it automatically. In tennis, there is a limit on the number of technology appeals you can make, but in football so far you can happily ask for every other tackle in the box to be viewed.
Wait until we get to the traditional Italian method of challenges in the box for a corner or free kick. You can guarantee there’s at least one foul going on in there at every set play, so which ones get highlighted and which don’t? Can you still get booked for dissent if the video then proves you had a point?
I wrote a column over a decade ago noting that technology wouldn’t help resolve the problems in Italian football, because someone would still complain that the robotic referee making the decisions was programmed by a Juventino. VAR is providing the worst of both worlds – technology to remove the excuse of not being able to see the incident and a human mind to make the decision.