Making a Message From VAR Mess

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Ayodele Okunfolami contends that video assistant referee is more or less killing the excitement in football

While speaking with British tabloid, Daily Mirror, earlier this month, the president of the Union of European Football Associations, Aleksander Ceferin, branded the Video Assistant Referee as “a mess”. He even went as far as sarcastically saying that, “If you have a long nose, you are in an offside position these days” in expressing his frustrations with the use of technology in football.

The demands for the use of technology to resolve some controversial decisions in football was increasing as the fan base expanded along with technological advancements.

Controversies have always been part of the sport but it became global conversation when 400 million television viewers were left arguing whether England’s Wembley Goal against West Germany in 1966 World Cup final crossed the line or not. England was on the receiving end exactly 20 years and six World Cups after Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God goal” caused another round of debate.

There were other pockets of controversial decisions that turned the tide for teams across different competitions but international football then led by Sepp Blatter, was reluctant to introduce the use of technology. Blatter had cautioned against the game losing its human angle and suffering interruptions (which could kill the flow of association football) like other sports that had adopted such technologies. In addition, there were fears that those watching on television would be having a different experience than those on the stands since those at home had opportunities for instant replays. Those sentiments had chimed with me.

Despite the outrage caused by William Gallas’ extra time goal that was aided by Thierry Henry handling the ball twice that qualified France for 2010 World Cup at the expense of Ireland, it was Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany that gave a seismic shift to the argument. In that particular 2010 incident, there were repeated replays showing the ball clearly crossing the goal line and bouncing off the goalpost into the field of play on the giant screens in the Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein aligning the shock of those watching at home or other electronic devices and those on the terraces. That was what ushered in the widely accepted electronically aided goal line technology. But the controversies remained because as much as goals are the most important part of football, events leading to a goal are equally as important. Pressure continued to mount for the use of a form of video assistance as is done in sports like cricket, tennis, rugby and in American major leagues. But conservative purists like me had gone to town too early contending that those sports could accommodate such technological inclusions since they had natural stoppages, unlike free flowing football. And coming from Africa, I feared this hi-tech incorporation would transform football from being a world sport to an elitist one. This would involve buying expensive equipment poor nations are unable to afford, thereby creating unequal divides on how the game is played, officiated and watched. It would further cut the pie poorer countries get from the soccer economy as hosting showpiece events become more difficult as standards rapidly move upwards.

But the earth moves and waits for no man plus the fact that viewership is getting younger and more digital. So it was all a matter of time that VAR was added into the laws of the game in 2018 as a match official who reviews decisions made by the centre referee.

However, it is not yet kumbaya as the controversies appears not to have gone away and so one can understand why Ceferin is worried.

First is that VAR is not yet universal. Some leagues and tournaments make use of it while some don’t. Some even use it at different stages of certain competitions or for different games making it not only haphazard but a tad unfair. For standardization of the game, I suggest the governing body outlines and insists on the competitions it must be used and downgrade or refuse to sanction the ones that don’t.

Another thing is the use of the VAR itself. While some station a monitor by the touchline for the centre referee to review and adjudicate as seen in the last World Cup in Russia, others like the English Premiership don’t have pitch side displays making referees surrender decisions to some unseen operators “upstairs”.

If I were to choose, I’ll rather the pitch side monitor for the referee to review personally and make his decisions. The referee must not lose the sovereignty to make decisions to some machine. After all, it is video ASSISTANT referee and its decisions should be subject to the referee like his other flagged assistants on the touchline.

Besides additional clarification from the governing body to save the football fraternity the numbers of contradicting interpretations of the VAR rule, the frequency of its use is also of concern. The way it is being applied at the moment, every grey goal could lead to one or any contentious call on the attention of VAR. I think calling for the VAR for every such incidence has defeated the “minimal interference, maximum benefit” philosophy that initiated it. Now a goal is scored, and players tamper their celebrations while spectators hold their excitement in wait for the confirmation of the goal by the VAR especially in cases where the centre ref himself wait some other to decide for him.

The goal of VAR is to make the most accurate of decisions; however we should be careful not to have a football recession where excitement is suffocated out of the game. Ironically, controversies have helped sustain the interest in the game over the decades.

Football should take cues from track and field that applies technology but remains intolerant with false starts and also counts down on runways for jumps and throws or basketball that uses the shot clock. The frequent resort to VAR can be limited to one per half for each team instead of making matches stretch beyond 100 minutes when one adds injury time because of VAR references. By this I mean, when a team is dissatisfied with a call or an oversight, it has only one opportunity in a half to ask the referee to refer to the VAR or the technologically measured offside that is also rendering linesmen obsolete. That is how tennis applies the hawk eye.

I believe this way; football will not lose the human element that comes with its own exciting flavour since it is not a video game.

Okunfolami wrote from Lagos