All season long, we’ve had complaints about the use of VAR in the English Premier League. Fans aren’t happy. Players aren’t happy. Managers aren’t happy. Even the pundits in their TV studios aren’t happy. It’s like everyone involved in football has unified behind a single cause, and the cause is the rejection of VAR and everything that it stands for. That’s a long way from where we were at the start of the season.
Many people inside and outside football have been campaigning for the use of technology in the sport for years. Through technology, we were told, it would be possible to see whether goals and fouls should or shouldn’t be given. It would be possible to review decisions and correct them if necessary. All of this would be done quickly and efficiently, and the process would be communicated to supporters.
We even saw evidence of this in action:- The use of VAR at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was mostly free of controversy and added a sense of certainty to the game. Whatever the end result was, fans and players could at least rest assured that the result would be fair.
For reasons that are yet to become clear, the way that VAR was used at the World Cup is very different from the way it’s been implemented in the English game. During the international tournament, referees would check monitors before deciding to overturn a decision. During league games, they’re blindly accepting the decisions being fed to them by the people watching the replays.
That would be a problem in and of itself, but the spate of offside decisions that have been given because someone has a toe, an elbow, or an armpit offside is becoming ludicrous. We saw it happen yet again during Chelsea’s shock 0-2 loss at home to Manchester United on Monday night, and this time fans responded to it in a new way. They simply got up and left.
The act of leaving the game doesn’t come easily to a fan who’s paid big money on a ticket and travel to the game, but it may be the last form of protest that they believe they have left. They’ve sung and chanted about VAR, but nothing’s happened. Protests have been filed with match officials and official bodies, but nothing has changed.
Fans no longer feel that they can celebrate a goal out of fear that the goal will subsequently be disallowed for an infringement that nobody could ever have been expected to see in real-time. Players are the same. A goal is no longer a goal until VAR checks are complete, and so everyone stands around in limbo for two minutes while someone in a room draws lines on a computer screen to check for bootlaces outside the boundaries. It’s killing the game as a spectator sport, and in the process, it’s killing the enthusiasm of fans watching live in the stadiums.
Things might not be so bad if games – and money – weren’t won and lost on such narrow margins. Chelsea and Manchester United are both in the hunt for the all-important fourth position in the Premier League, which would bring them Champions League football next season and all the riches that come with it. The difference that having Champions League status or not will make to their income and their summer player recruitment is enormous, and yet they have to deal with VAR outcomes that are as unpredictable as an online slots game.
In fact, the owners of both clubs would probably agree that comparing the situation to UK Online Slots is very apt – they’ve spent their money, and now a seemingly-random process will determine whether or not they get to make a return on it. The biggest difference is that at least some of the people playing on online slots websites will be happy with the returns they’re getting right now. With VAR, nobody is.
The issue has been going on all season, but the Chelsea – Manchester United game may prove to be a turning point. There was very little wrong with the first of Chelsea’s disallowed goals, but as there was a push, the decision not to let it stand was at least understandable. The second disallowed goal, for which Olivier Giroud was adjudged to be offside by about half the length of his boot, was farcical. The benefit of the doubt is supposed to be given to attacking players in situations where doubt exists. So far this season, we haven’t seen forwards given the benefit of the doubt once.
If Chelsea felt aggrieved about the two disallowed goals, they were positively incandescent about the inexplicable decision not to send United center-back Harry Maguire off for kicking out at Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi. Tottenham striker Son Heung-min was dismissed for an almost identical offense several weeks ago – he was on the floor, and extended his leg toward an opposing player, striking him the process. Son got a straight red card. Maguire escaped any punishment at all in the exact same scenario. Not only is VAR disallowing goals that should stand, it’s also causing inconsistency with decisions made elsewhere on the park. For want of another word, the whole situation is in shambles.
The current situation clearly cannot be allowed to go unchanged next season. The integrity of football as a sport is at risk, and the enthusiasm of supporters has been adversely affected. VAR decisions need to be faster, more accurate, and give more leeway to attacking players in marginal situations.
Perhaps a system like the one used in cricket could be applied, where the captain of a side has to appeal to the referee to use video technology if they want a decision overturned, and is only allowed to do so three times. That would mean that no decision that went uncontested by the team on the wrong side of it would ever be overturned, and everyone would know where they stood. To follow up on that, every video decision has to be made by the on-pitch referee reviewing the footage on the touchline, and fans in the stadium would be able to watch the replays of the incident in question.
There is a place for technology in football, and there always has been. We shouldn’t and must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do, however, need to see a radical rethink from the most senior authorities in the game before this farce ruins another season.
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