- VAR was introduced in the Premier League at the start of the 2019-20 season
- So far, VAR has resulted in a number of controversial and confusing incidents
- The lack of communication regarding decisions is leaving spectators clueless
- Scrapping VAR isn’t the answer, but clearly a solution needs to be found soon
- The answer is to give coaches the onus by giving them two challenges per match
The introduction of Video Assistant Referees in the Premier League has been controversial
A number of confusing elements to the new technology has clouded a number of games so far
Roberto Firmino’s armpit was adjudged to have been offside against Aston Villa last Saturday
Gabriel Jesus was incandescent after his late winner against Spurs was ruled out in August
Saints coach Sean Payton was furious at officials for the call in the NFC Championship game
The Premier League’s attempt at clarifying decisions on Twitter is still leaving people baffled
The Video Assistant Referees are housed at Stockley Park in London for each league match
Mary Cain (left) spoke out strongly against disgraced athletics coach Alberto Salazar (right)
Apart from the rugby, the steak, the sushi, the trains, the hospitality, the hot springs, the honesty, the cleanliness and the courtesy, there was one other beautiful advantage in spending the last five weeks in Japan: the sheer relief of not having to confront the unfolding day-by-day disaster of VAR, being only vaguely aware of it lurching from one farce to another, trailing hysteria and ridicule in its wake.
The problem is, I wanted VAR. I was in favour of it. I still am. But not like this. Not in this ruin of what it was supposed to be. Not in this abomination that has, so far, proved all the people I called troglodytes for opposing it absolutely correct in their scepticism and their animus.
English football, the richest enclave of the richest sport on this planet, has managed to make itself a laughing stock.
VAR, as it stands, is not fit for purpose. It is close to being unworkable. The game’s confidence in it has already ebbed away. The rules appear to change from week to week. Interpretation is inconsistent. Managers are puzzled and angry. The officials are panicking. Every week, there’s a new wrinkle.
Everything that the Premier League and the Professional Game Match Officials could have got wrong, they have got wrong.
So it goes like this. The referee is in charge. No, he isn’t. The referee should look at a touchline monitor. No, he shouldn’t. VAR can judge an offside to within a few millimetres. No, it can’t.
VAR is here to correct clear and obvious errors. Not if you’re Son Heung-min it isn’t. It’s here to encourage more goals and give the advantage to the attacker. Not if your Roberto Firmino’s armpit it isn’t.
And then there’s the communication part. Communication is key to a successful relationship. Everyone knows that. Which is why the relationship between VAR and the fans has broken down. There is no communication.
In other sports, the spectators know what is going on. In tennis, in rugby, in cricket, they can see the replays on the big screen. The fans are included in the process. But football?
In football, even that part is beyond them. It’s pathetic. The authorities’ lack of planning, the lack of insight, the lack of understanding, is pitiful. It’s not so much that there’s a delay when VAR checks something. It’s that nobody knows why there’s a delay. Nobody knows what the hell is going on.
A friend of mine went to the Manchester City-Spurs game in August when Gabriel Jesus had a late goal disallowed by VAR. He wrote to me about it. ‘We left the game not knowing why the goal had been disallowed,’ he said.
‘We walked to Piccadilly station talking to fans around us… nobody knew why the goal was disallowed. We chatted on the platform and on the train back to Alderley. Nobody knew.
‘It was 9.30. Bought some wine in Waitrose and bumped into Paul Dickov. He did us the courtesy for 10 minutes trying to explain to us what had gone on.
‘It’s so wrong. Fans who have had the courtesy to turn up to a live game should be the priority. Not the armchair fans.’
The situation is not helped by the fact that some people have always wanted VAR to fail. Professional contrarians. Against Remain and against Leave, too. Hate VAR but threw up their hands in horror in the old days when human error created injustice after injustice.
The NFL, which has been using video replay for the last 20 years or more, is a good example of the Can’t Win scenario at the moment.
Last season, in the NFC Championship game, one of the biggest games of the season, the officials missed a blatant incident of pass interference — a foul in football terms — that meant the Los Angeles Rams went to the Super Bowl instead of the New Orleans Saints.
It was cut and dried. No possible argument.
But pass interference was not one of the areas of the game covered by video replay. So the decision stood, even though everyone knew from TV replays that it was perpetuating an injustice. A lawsuit was even launched, in vain, to try to get the result annulled.
There were also, of course, demands that video replay be extended to cover pass interference.
After months of being lobbied, the NFL duly extended video replay. Now, a few months into the new season, there have been some contentious calls and many are saying it shouldn’t be used for pass interference after all.
So scrapping VAR isn’t the answer. The status quo ante is rarely the answer. We introduced VAR because the previous system was obviously outdated and it was clear referees needed help. VAR is progress. Or it should be.
You can’t ignore technology and pretend it doesn’t exist. Then the chaos returns in its old form. The answer is compromise. The answer is the best of both worlds. It is what we should have done in the first place.
What football tried to do was go from nought to 60 in the blink of an eye.
Having resisted technological assistance for so long, it finally embraced goal-line technology in 2013. And then, when that was a success, it got giddy. From shunning video replay, football decided to use it for everything: offsides, handballs, penalty decisions, bad tackles, everything.
The compromise, the answer, is to take the best of what the NFL, cricket and tennis do and allow each coach two challenges per match. It is the perfect solution, which is one of the reasons it will be discussed at a Premier League meeting this week.
The idea has been dismissed by the game’s lawmakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) because they do not have the vision to see that it would work.
It works because you put the onus back on the competitor because if the officials make a mistake, the wronged party has the chance to contest it.
And if coaches neglect the chance to contest a decision and it turns out they should have contested it, then that’s on them. No one can complain.
It works because it gives football most of its spontaneity back, the loss of which so many have mourned. It works because it does not undermine the referee at every turn.
Give the referee the power to judge the merits of the coach’s challenge, too. Sure, have a VAR at Stockley Park to advise but let the referee make his own mind up. Let him be the one to go over to a touchline monitor and view the incident again.
VAR, in its current shambolic state, has made it feel as if football is in the grip of anarchy. It needs to get some order back.
All there is now is confusion. All there is now is angst and controversy. It is the opposite of what was supposed to happen. It is the opposite of what could still happen.
VAR is still the future. It just has to go one step back to take two steps forward.
Thoughts on Nike now, Paula?
The former US middle distance phenomenon Mary Cain gave a harrowing video interview last week in which she revealed the regime run by Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), dominated by a fixation on female athletes’ weight, had not only ruined her career before it really began but led her to cut herself and contemplate suicide.
Cain welcomed the recent banning of Salazar and the disbandment of the disgraced NOP but said the problem of Nike’s influence in athletics remained largely untouched.
‘They’re not acknowledging a systemic crisis in women’s sports and at Nike in which young girls’ bodies are being ruined by an emotionally and physically abusive system,’ said Cain.
‘My worry is Nike is going to rebrand the old programme.’
I wonder what Paula Radcliffe, Nike’s ambassador and defender, thinks when she sees footage like that.
Squeaky clean image long gone
For a long time, we bought into the idea that Team Sky and British Cycling were built around meticulous organisation and marginal gains.
The squeaky clean image they manufactured died a long time ago but the revelations from the medical tribunal of their former doctor, Richard Freeman, last week make them look like extras in a Laurel and Hardy sketch.
Rarely in sport can image and reality have been so badly confused.