‘Video killed the football star’

More and more football leagues are making use of a Video Assistant Referee, also known as VAR. This development has changed football and the way we look at it completely.

Text by Brendan Mc Dade 

A referee can’t always make the right decision. Football is a game where a lot can happen in a matter of seconds. Situations like tackles, fouls and offside positions can be hard to judge at times. The referee used to have just a few assistants on the field to help him out. That was until the arise of the VAR system. This system has made it possible to judge certain game situations via camera images. This is done by several referees who watch the game from a separate area on multiple screens. They help the head referee in his decision making and can choose to interrupt him during certain game situations. This has changed football drastically, resulting in a lot of debate on VAR.  

Steve Oosterkamp, freelance sports journalist, thinks the impact of the VAR has been immense. “The sport itself has become a lot more fair because of it. Obvious refereeing mistakes are no longer part of the game. The infamous Thierry Henry handball against Ireland is something we’re not going to see in the future”, says Steve.

The sport itself has become a lot more fair because of it.

The origin of VAR goes back to the start of the 2010s. The Royal Netherlands Football Association [KNVB] helped conceiving the system and was the first to use it during the 2012-2013 season of the Eredivisie, the highest league in Dutch football. In 2014 they recommended it to the International Football Association Board, which eventually resulted in an adoption of it by all the top football leagues.

A football…                                                                                                       Credit: Unsplash

Since then, FIFA has deemed the VAR a success. The World Cup of 2018 was the first major tournament where it was used. FIFA said the VAR had a 99.3 percent success rate at that tournament, whilst the decisions without it had a 95 percent success rate. “If you look at all the statistics of the effect of VAR, you can clearly see it has had a positive effect in terms of correcting errors on the pitch. It’s a fact that more right decisions are being made with the help of a video assistant referee”, says Steve. 

But despite this, the VAR has also been under a lot of criticism since its implementation in professional football. Both footballers and supporters have their doubts about the system. Dutch news medium AD conducted a research amongst coaches and captains of 15 Eredivisie clubs, about the use of VAR in their League. Daniel Dwarswaard, sports journalist for AD, says that the majority of the respondents do want the system to stay in the Eredivisie. But only if its current role in the game gets changed. “Players and coaches would like to see a less dominant presence of VAR in football. Nearly every little thing in the game is checked in the current system. This has changed the game a lot, resulting in frustration for many football players”, says Daniel. 

Emotion is the most important element of football.

Decisions the VAR makes take up to 80 seconds on average. That’s a lot longer than the instant decision making prior to the VAR era. As a result, supporters have become more reluctant after a goal has been scored. Goals can still possibly be disallowed after being checked by the video assistant referee after all. “Players and supporters don’t know if they should cheer after a goal anymore. The VAR is always in the back of their head. The spontaneity of football has gone completely, which is a real shame”, Steve exclaims. Daniel shares this opinion; “Emotion is the most important element of football. The VAR has completely altered the viewing experience of football in a negative way.”

Another point of critique the system is receiving: it is not being used consistently over the different competitions. Referees are able to view what the video assistant referee sees on a smaller screen located at the side of the football pitch. This is used a lot in the Eredivisie, but is hardly ever used in the Premier League, the highest football league in England. Sven Spaan, who referees football at a high amateur level, thinks the quality of referees is the main cause of this problem. “Referees in the Premiere League are just not as good as the referees in the Eredivisie. This can be seen when you compare the number of Dutch referees appointed at tournaments, compared to the number English referees appointed at tournaments. A consistent VAR can only be realized with a consistent level of referees throughout the different competitions”, Sven explains.     

The future of VAR is still unsure. It has helped to correct obvious errors in football, but it has also impacted fans and players in mixed ways. The premise of it is something most people can get behind, but the implementation of might still need some sharpening. “We should strive to get to a point where we’re talking about the game itself again afterwards, instead of its refereeing decisions”, says Steve. The future of VAR isn’t doomed however according to Daniel. “People will always need to get used to changes. The controversies regarding VAR might be completely accepted in 5 years”, Daniel concludes.    

Watch the infamous Thierry Henry handball against Ireland below: