VAR: Very Arbitrary Refereeing

Image courtesy of Dale Johnson, Twitter

Here’s a hot take to start off this rant I’m about to go on. I thought VAR at the Women’s World Cup was executed brilliantly. Yep, you heard that right. It was the best usage of VAR I’ve seen so far since it became relatively mainstream in football.

If you’re not shaking your head in disgust right now, then allow me to delve a little deeper into my thoughts.

First, let it be known that the actual on-field refereeing at the WWC was, in my opinion, not that great. VAR, particularly when it came to penalty kicks, was thus used rather regularly, with the referee in the video booth frequently needing to advise the referee on the field that an error had been made and needed correcting. 11 out of the 26 penalties—nearly half—awarded at the tournament were only given after VAR consultation, which is an obscenely high number and included several calls that really should have been made before any video intervention.

In addition, three penalties were retaken due to goalkeepers coming off their goal line, with one of those incidents in particular drawing the ire of many fans due to uncertainty over whether or not Scotland goalkeeper Lee Alexander was actually off her line.

VAR was very heavily used at the WWC, and with that came very heavy criticism, particularly concerning the extremely fine margins of some of the offside and goalkeeper-goal-line calls. However, I was extremely impressed with the way it was handled, because of one key factor: its consistency.

Offsides, for example, were scrutinized down to the millimetre every single time, and even if you didn’t agree with the level of minutiae the video looked at, you couldn’t argue with the resulting call it produced. Goalkeepers on penalty kicks likewise; while the foot-on-the-line rule was given a hell of a lot of leeway in the past, it was made clear during the tournament that if it was breached, no matter by how much, it would be called. Handballs were always applied in the same manner as well, as were reckless follow-throughs on tackles in which players initially played the ball.

The measure of consistency shown from VARs throughout the entire World Cup was extremely impressive. However, it’s been all downhill from there.

VAR in European leagues

Fast forward to the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul. The match is in a penalty shootout, the score is 5-4 to Liverpool with one Chelsea kick remaining. No player has missed so far. Up steps Tammy Abraham.

The save was made – and despite the above image, no intervention was made by VAR Clément Turpin.

Am I a little biased? Yeah, probably. But was the rule broken? There’s crystal-clear evidence that it was.

If this play happened at the Women’s World Cup, it would have been overturned by VAR. (Coincidentally, a tournament in which both Turpin, and more notably, referee Stéphanie Frappart participated.) Remember, this is what Pierluigi Collina outlined during the Women’s World Cup:

With UEFA’s message, on the other hand, being that the goalkeeper needs to have encroached ‘clearly and blatantly’ before a VAR will step in, it seems we have opposing philosophies between football’s two biggest governing bodies.

As it turned out, right around the same time as Collina came out with this mandate, the Premier League Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) decided that they would not have their VARs rule on goalkeepers’ penalty kick encroachments this season, the Premier League’s first with VAR in operation. This, as I discussed in a previous post, has to do with the PL’s insistence on maintaining “the speed of the English game” over the desire to actually make correct calls on the field.

Over in Germany, the Bundesliga is taking a similar stance to UEFA, preferring to leave decisions up to the on-field referees but willing to have video assistants intervene in extreme cases. So, to recap:

  • FIFA says goalkeepers should be penalized by VAR for any infraction they make, no matter how small.
  • UEFA and Bundesliga VARs require a blatantly obvious infraction before potentially intervening.
  • The Premier League’s VARs will not rule on goalkeepers, period.

How can this be allowed to happen? How is it right that a penalty that would be retaken in a World Cup will be allowed to stand in the Champions League? Moreover, why was the law even changed in the first place (legally allowing goalkeepers to move one foot off the line) if it still isn’t going to be enforced?

VAR at the Women’s World Cup may have caused some controversy but you cannot argue its legitimacy when it came to factual, black-or-white decisions. Rules have much greater effectiveness when they are consistently applied in the same way – and if UEFA, the Bundesliga, the Premier League, and any others try to be different, relative acceptance of the laws is a pipe dream at best.

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