UAE football supporters, like millions of fans around the world, are divided. While some call VAR a "joke", others find that the anger is misdirected.
But, look no further than the infuriated Twitter threads peppered with expletives every game night to see that, whichever way you dice it, VAR is officially overshadowing football.
The controversies are piling up day in and day out. The situation became so bad last week that long-time referee Mike Dean, whose two subsequent red card calls were overturned, had to request to be removed from the weekend rotation of English Premier League duty due to death threats to his family.
While a few, brave, outspoken footballers and managers (who risk being sanctioned for speaking out against the technology) claim that VAR is killing the game they love, and referees are bearing the brunt of the anger, many fans are also left frustrated by inconsistencies.
What a joke, honestly. What’s the point of having VAR?
“What a joke, honestly. What’s the point of having VAR?” said Elron Gomes, who hails from India.
“The whole point of VAR is, ‘Hey, we have a machine here, we can review the video, we can see what’s actually a foul, what’s not a foul, and that will reduce errors and make the game more fair.' But that’s not actually happening.”
UAE-based Saudi Arabian radio host Hassan Ahmad Dennaoui, also known as Big Hass, said it takes away from the game.
“VAR is not real. We’re gonna have different opinions and that’s okay I guess. There’s something weird about fans waiting off to celebrate a goal, and it’s not a goal. I could understand why it’s happening, but I wish we don’t have VAR,” said Dennaoui.
VAR is not real ... I could understand why it's happening, but I wish we don't have VAR.
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Shyama Krishna Kumar, a Gulf News Pages Editor and long-time Liverpool fan, agreed.
“VAR has sucked out all the joy from football,” she said. “VAR was introduced to take care of clear-cut mistakes and get rid of those anomalies, or mistakes that human referees end up making. But VAR hasn’t really fixed that problem and has only created more issues. Given a choice, I’d prefer human inconsistencies over technology making the same mistakes.”
Sara Al Boom, an avid Emirati football fan, said she would take human error any day.
I would rather live with the human error of the referee, as opposed to the VAR system.
“I’ve always been a little sceptical when it comes to introducing certain types of technology onto the world’s greatest game,” said Al Boom.
“I personally feel that there are other sports, such as cricket, tennis or even American football that had certain reliance on the video-like technology that worked in their favour. But when it comes to football, I would rather live with the human error of the referee, as opposed to the VAR system,” she added.
Meanwhile, Nikhil Stephen from India felt that it was “purist” perspective to suggest that VAR takes away from the game. It's football that's controversial — not VAR.
As a viewer, it doesn’t bother me that it takes away minutes from the game, or that it ruins the experience, as some football purists might say.
“I welcome VAR into football. My initial gut feeling is it would be good for the game. I still continue to believe so," he said.
"As a viewer, it doesn’t bother me that it takes away minutes from the game, or that it ruins the experience, as some football purists might say,” he continued.
“Pundits and players have had their opinions about VAR, but at the end of the day, it’s a tool for the referees, and they must decide how best to use it. Just like any other tool, it can be misused.
"But overall, I feel that it’s the situations in football that cause controversies, and not VAR — VAR just happens to be the tool used in these controversial situations.”
What is VAR?
Back in the good old days of 2019, football could count on the fact that there were lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Often and wrongly attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, it was oddly an American — Mark Twain — who came up with the apt phrase for soccer. It defines the sport in a nutshell — referee calls can go against the run of the game and change a vital result with the blow of a whistle. But now is the time to redefine that phrase as we are no longer just at the mercy of a shrill peep, but also at the beck and call of boffins upstairs in a darkened room.
VAR has changed the shape of football as a sport forever, with the once-irrevertible referee decision now being overturned by colleagues with a mouse and screen.
Given the arguments that have arisen due to the inconsistencies in decisions across the top leagues in Europe — a toe here and an arm there allowing goals to be often-wrongly given and chalked off — if anything we are in an even more grey area than ever before.
Maybe now is the time for Uefa and Fifa to step in and lay down the law, punish indiscrepancies before the Euros and World Cup come along and some real damage is done.
- Matt Smith, Sports Editor
VAR is an acronym for video assistant referees. In essence, VAR is an assistant referee that helps the match referee determine the following: goal or no goal, direct red card violations, penalty decisions and mistaken identity, which helps identify the correct player who should be sanctioned.
How does it work?
There is a VOR — video operation room — set up with several screens and operaters. They have keyboards to control the replay. They also have head pieces to communicate with the OFR — on-field referee. When an incident occurs, they can replay the footage and analyse it, and provide a recommendation. The OFR makes the final decision.
What three steps happen every time VAR comes into play?
- INCIDENT OCCURS: An incident takes place that requires further review. While the referee may consult VAR and ask for a recommendation, typically, it’s the VAR who initiates. This is so that the OFRs (on-field referees) can focus on making immediate calls on the pitch.
- VAR REVIEW: Footage is reviewed in the video operation room and the VAR provides advice via a headset.
- DECISION MADE: It’s up to the on-field referee to now either accept the advice immediately, reject it and stick to their original ruling, or go over to check the footage himself via a screen available on the side of the field and make a final decision.
When was VAR introduced?
VAR was born out of The Royal Netherlands Football’s ‘Refereeing 2.0’ project in the early 2010s, with mock trials from 2012 onwards. However, it launched in 2016, during an international friendly between France and Italy. In 2017, it was implemented in the Bundesliga. In 2018, it arrived in England during an FA Cup match between Brighton and Crystal Palace. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) wrote VAR into the Laws of the Game that same year, launching the technology on a permanent basis. By 2019-20, the English Premier League introduced it into the competition.
Why is VAR controversial?
BAD CALLS: VAR has come under fire for making bad calls time and again, where the on-field referee’s decision was wrongly overturned. These calls usually determined the outcome of the game. Since VAR launched in the English Premier League, competition officials have repeatedly confirmed these incorrect calls to media outlets. In 2019, the league outlined four bad decisions, three of which were major penalty shots that had been wrongly awarded.
WHO’S SIDE ARE YOU ON: Another issue with VAR is that it causes teams (plus managers and fans) to feel cheated. Because VAR is operated by humans, it is limited in its scope and accuracy. For example, if a VAR official decides to review one incident, but doesn’t check for another blatant offence, a sense of distrust and frustration arises. It’s one thing for an on-field referee to miss a bookable offence due to human error, but it’s another thing entirely, it feels like, for ‘technology’ to pick and choose what to punish — especially as VAR was marketed as a tool for fairness and accuracy.
SLOWS DOWN PLAY: It’s the most obvious and simple reason many fans feel like VAR killed football — it slows down play. Instead of immediate rulings, the game is disrupted and comes to a complete halt (often for 90 seconds, sometimes even more) every time a VAR review takes place.
DRACONIC MEASURES: One of the biggest issues with VAR is the overly strict offside rulings. Footage is slowed down so that split-seconds are dragged out on loop. As a result, an elbow or a toe that is millimetres off-side, for a fraction of a moment, can lead to a disallowed goal. This robs football of its immediacy and makes the game feel unnatural, mechanical, and arguably hugely unfair.
How do referees feel about VAR?
The curious thing about VAR – and league football in general – is that referees are not allowed to speak to the media. Theirs is a vital voice in the debate for and against VAR, considering they’re the officials directly involved in executing the decisions. Alas, if a player like Mo Salah is afraid of getting fined for voicing his true opinion on VAR, we can only imagine what kind of hesitations referees go through.
However, former referees have weighed in on the meaty debate.
"Those operating VAR are shooting themselves in the foot. What they are doing is turning half of the country into non-believers,” said former Spainish referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez, after a fractional offside call led to a disallowed goal for Leo Messi against Alaves in La Liga.
Former English Premier League official Keith Hackett meanwhile suggested that VAR should be operated by designated specialists only, rather than it being a free for all.
“VAR is only supposed to get involved when it is a clear and obvious error,” he said, speaking to PA news.
“At the moment VAR is trying to get involved in everything. I think there needs to be a rethink of how VAR operates. I don’t think it is great you are a referee one day and that same referee who had a good game or whatever game he had, then has to drive to Stockley Park to act as a VAR operator.”
Howard Webb, former EPL referee and head of Professional Referee Organisation (PRO), said that VAR boosts confidence of referees.
“There's no doubt, though, that the existence of VAR gives officials confidence, because when they will make the decision, they will know it's going to be checked by a colleague who's highly trained and an intervention will come if, in the opinion of that highly trained individual, it's clear error has been made,” said Webb.
"So we don't expect perfection, but we aim for it. We find we're getting better each time and more efficient each year. But I would caution people never to expect they'll agree with every single outcome every time because we're still dealing with human beings and I think in some ways people don't don't actually mind that."
What players have to say: For and against
PLAYERS FOR VAR: 'NO BRAINER, IT'S WORKING'
Philippe Coutinho: “You have to be careful how you talk to the referee, how you go up to him. You may end up harming yourself and the team. That's not what people want. You may end up getting a yellow card. You have to remember referees are competent people doing their job, and VAR is there to help them.”
Luiz Suarez: “There are many attitudes on the pitch that are no longer being protected. You have to be much more aware of what's in the interest of the team. With VAR now, some things can be sanctioned that would have gone unnoticed.”
That 4.3% difference? Could be your team winning the league or not, a trophy or not, relegated or not.
Stan Collymore (ex-Liverpool): “World Cup VAR decisions. 95% correct without VAR. 99.3% correct with VAR. Decisions checked by VAR, 335. That 4.3% difference? Could be your team winning the league or not, a trophy or not, relegated or not. No brainer. VAR is working.”
PLAYERS AGAINST VAR: 'FALLING OUT OF LOVE'
Mo Salah (Liverpool, 2021): “I think before, I don't like VAR! From the beginning of the season, in my opinion it's killing the game; the joy of football. Here, you have to be in exactly the same line. But I think in the Champions League or some other countries, they give the striker more space to... if they score, it's fine for them. I don't want to complain about it, because I don't want to get fined. But my opinion about VAR? I don't like it."
Conor Coady (Wolves, 2019): “We feel massively hard done by and I can't get my head around it. For me, it is not working. Some people are saying it gets the right decision, but we're the players on the pitch and it doesn't feel right to me. It is still confusing, I can't get my head around it. You don't get answers on the pitch.”
The guys who make the rules should be people in the game. I don’t know who makes them.
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, 2020): “I don’t know the rules anymore, honestly. What can we say? I have been playing professional football for 12 years, and in the first nine years, there were no rule changes. Then in the last three years, there has been a lot of rule changes. I don’t know why. Football is such a nice game. The guys who make the rules should be people in the game. I don’t know who makes them. I would just say, be consistent, that’s it.”
Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, 2020): “I can’t really speak about it because I’ll get myself in trouble … I just want to play football as normal. I saw Kevin De Bruyne saying in an interview they have changed so many rules we don’t know what they are anymore. That for me is a big problem. We are talking about instances all the time and not the football. In my opinion, I would rather play without it.”
Sure I’m not alone in feeling like they are falling out of love with the game in its current state.
James Milner (Liverpool, 2020): “It’s 'clear and obvious' we need a serious discussion about VAR. Sure I’m not alone in feeling like they are falling out of love with the game in its current state.”
Nordin Ambarat: The Morroccan mouthed “VAR is [expletive]” into the camera when his country failed to win any of their Group B fixtures at the World Cup.
Managers on VAR: “VAR is destroying the game, that’s right”
“We stop celebrating goals, we wait constantly, we have less than millimetre offside decisions. A lot of things are not like they were before, that's the truth," admitted Jurgen Klopp, earlier this season.
The Liverpool boss says VAR has taken away from the “game we all loved before”. The technology has been seemingly detrimental to Klopp’s campaign to win the league thus far. Some fans even created the hashtag #LiVARpool to share their conspiracy theories around the team's VAR woes.
"I said when the idea of VAR first came up I was in favour of it because I thought the right decisions would be nice, if we could have rights decisions. I'm not sure we all thought it through properly and how long will it take to get the right decision, how much will it take away from a game we all loved before.”
(Interestingly, this is a 180 for Klopp who initially thought the introduction of VAR into the EPL would be positive, saying, “It looks really interesting and a lot of things will be clear; I think with offside we will not have a lot of problems because that will be extremely clear.”)
Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl slammed VAR just this week after this team lost in a controversial match against the Wolves.
They are not doing a good job at the moment. It is that simple. VAR is destroying the game, that's right.
"I am normally a big fan, and if the VAR followed the rules everything would be easy," he said. "I don't know what Mr Atkinson saw today, but they are not doing a good job at the moment. It is that simple. VAR is destroying the game, that's right.”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, whose team is top of the table, said last season that ‘every week is a mess’ with VAR.
Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder didn’t mince words about his feelings, either.
“I thought this is the entertainment business,” he said. “We want to see goals, and we want to see action, and we’re chalking off goals. I think everybody’s looking at it going, ‘Where does it leave his foot? Where’s the line? What line is it? What part of the body is it? Is it blurred? Where is he taking it from?’ I’ve said enough about VAR to last a lifetime."
We want to see goals, and we want to see action ... I’ve said enough about VAR to last a lifetime.
Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson may have put it best last season.
“I was under the impression when we had people talking about it, that it was only for clear and obvious errors when there has been a clear mistake, but now we are looking with a fine tooth-comb to see if someone’s arm is onside or offside,” said Hodgson.
Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo believes the power should be left in the hands of on-field officials: “The VAR is miles away taking decisions on a lot of things happening here. Who is inside the game? Who feels the intensity and the flow? The referee here.”
Call to change the 'offside' rules of VAR
Arsene Wenger, former Arsenal manager and Chief of Global Football Developmen at Fifa, has called for a swift change to VAR's most controversial rule: the offside. This amendment could see the light of day as soon as next season the EPL.
"The most difficult [problem] that people have [with VAR] is the offside rule. You have had offsides by a fraction of a centimetre, literally by a nose. It is the time to do this quickly," said Wenger, this time last year. “There is room to change the rule and not say that a part of a player’s nose is offside, so you are offside because you can score with that.
"Instead, you will be not be offside if any part of the body that can score a goal is in line with the last defender, even if other parts of the attacker’s body are in front. That will sort it out and you will no longer have decisions about millimetres and a fraction of the attacker being in front of the defensive line," he concluded.
Beyond VAR: The future is here
It’s still up to the referee to make the final call, based on the information provided to him by GLT.
However, goal-line tech isn’t cheap, so it’s implemented in select arenas, such as the Fifa World Cup and Europe’s top domestic leagues.
If you’ve ever noticed a footballer wearing what looks like a half vest, which covers his or her bust, that is a form of EPTS (and, more specifically, Local Positioning Systems [LPS]). Another part of EPTS is the camera-based optical tracking, which is less invasive to players.
In 2015, IFAB approved the use of wearable technology in football. In 2019, Fifa concluded a four-year validation study regarding EPTS and "the project was met with overall approval but a clear consensus that this is only the first step in developing more refined standards that reflect challenges in football."
Fifa in 2015 explained the basic thought process behind EPTS.
Marco van Basten, the Chief Technical Development Officer, clarified: “For doctors, it can be helpful. They understand, is [the player] getting tired, is he sweating too much, is he under stress?”
To qualify for the Fifa Innovation Programme, applicants would meet certain criteria; for instance, their product must exist as at least a prototype, so that it can be demonstrated physically or virtually. In addition, they must have a specific timeline to complete the project that doesn’t exceed two years.