As we get into the last leg of the group stages for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, we have already been presented with a lot to talk about thus far. Argentina has collapsed from within, Cristiano Ronaldo has carried Portugal in each game, Neymar has behaved like a petulant child, all big talking points from the tournament. However, without a doubt the biggest talking point is the implementation of VAR in the World Cup. While it has been used at club level for a couple of seasons now, this is the first time it has been used at the biggest stage in football, and it certainly hasn’t been without its controversy. Many people believe it should be removed from the game, while others think the idea is fantastic and long overdue. As it has led to 50/50 decisions and a lot of interpretations, the big question is has it been brought in too early? No, it hasn’t. In fact, it’s been a long time coming for the biggest sporting event in the world to finally offer assistance to the referees.
Has it been needed in the past?
The major reason VAR has been introduced is to allow referees a second look at a decision or an incident, seeing it from different angles and at a different speed that isn’t afforded to them on the pitch. It puts them on a level playing field with viewers and allows them to rectify and correct a mistake they may have made. Opposition to VAR has used the arguments that it doesn’t allow the referee to do their job, and that it is leaving it to a computer, but this is a false argument. The replay simply allows the referee to have another look if they feel they need to, or if the video referee has told them, via an earpiece, that the incident should be looked at again. After the review, it is still up to the referee to change their decision or leave it, meaning the referee still has the control over the outcome. Regardless of that, it offers help to the referee, a thankless job that is tasked with controlling a game of football, let alone the biggest games in the world; it isn’t a wrong thing to merely give them extra assistance.
It’s also certainly safe to say it’s been needed in the past. You would only have to look back at the history of the World Cup to see where a video assistant would be needed, and see that VAR would have helped correct massive mistakes made the referee. Think Fabio Grosso’s dive against Australia in 2006, a decision that awarded Italy a 90th minute penalty, however replays indicated that the referee made a mistake and would have benefited off of a closer look. Even more damning evidence, is Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland, in the playoff qualifier for the 2010 World Cup. Henry blatantly handled the ball, before teeing up William Gallas for a late winner. It’s clear that the referee missed it, but had he been given another look at the goal, would have seen the handball and disallowed the goal, and given Ireland a better chance to qualify and not be eliminated from a case of cheating by the French. And perhaps the infamous goal of all time, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986, would not have stood. Diving and controlling the ball with your hand is one thing, but literally punching the ball into the goal is a whole other case in itself, and football would look entirely different if the referee was given a chance to make the correct call.
Has it been working?
Ultimately, the past is in the past and we cannot change it. The Australians can moan about Grosso’s dive, the Irish can constantly bring up Henry’s handball, and the English can argue for decades about Maradona’s antics, but nothing can be done, we can only learn from it, and learning from it is understanding that the referees are human and will make mistakes and they will miss calls, so it’s only fair to allow them some help. For the most part, VAR has been a success so far in the World Cup, and while it has caused some controversy because people are still against the idea, it has allowed correct decisions to be made.
In Brazil’s game against Costa Rica, for example, Brazil was awarded a penalty in the second half, after Neymar was judged to have been dragged down in the box. Yet replays told a different tale, and the referee went to the VAR to have another look, and reversed his call after, upon another look, it was seen that the contact was minimal and not enough to have warranted a penalty. Without VAR, a wrongful penalty would have counted and Brazil likely would have taken the lead due to an incorrect decision by the referee, and we would have had yet another big controversial penalty in a World Cup, following Arjen Robben’s infamous dive against Mexico in 2014.
Is technology needed in football?
Most detractors are worried about the heavy influence technology is having in sport and in football. But they have to face the facts, if technology is available to improve the game, it must be implemented. Goal-line technology was the most recent case of a major implementation of technology to aid referees, and it was a major success at the 2014 World Cup and has been a mainstay in football ever since. After Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany in 2010 wasn’t counted, despite having crossed the line by at least a yard, FIFA sought to prevent this from happening again, and now thanks to goal-line technology it hasn’t happened again. Who’s to say VAR won’t have the same positive effect on the game?
Admittedly, sometimes it does slow the game down as the referees can sometimes take their time to come to a decision, but you have to remember that VAR is still in its infancy, and there are still kinks to iron out. It was trialled at club level previously, and it wouldn’t have been implemented in the World Cup unless FIFA were confident it would work, and so far it has worked. There haven’t been any high-profile incorrect calls like in every other tournament prior, and if there has been or will be, then at least the referee has the chance to review it. Anything after a reviewal is down to the referee, where the decision is ultimately up to them, but at least now they have a chance to make an informed decision and correct themselves if they have to.
Video replay and technology has also been a huge factor in other sports worldwide. Imagine watching the cricket without the third umpire, or without hawkeye giving us the best look at a LBW decision. Tennis wouldn’t be the same without the option for players to challenge an umpires call, and review whether or not a shot was in or out. Even the NFL has the option for coaches to challenge a call, and while the result may not always be perfect, like in football, the referee has the chance to review their call, and make an informed decision. The simple fact that the option is there is what is most important.
Football is the biggest sport, the biggest event in the world; it is far too costly to continue to allow mistakes to go unrectified. For the sake of a fair game and for the sake of the referees, who have the hardest job in the sport, VAR and technology is needed, and it wasn’t too early to bring it in.