VAR: what is it good for?

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You may have seen the Premier League’s recent PR efforts to head off (some would say inevitable) complaints about the debut of VAR this coming season.

Mike Riley, former ref and managing director of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), was in the media earlier this month saying VARs will not “re-referee” games and that the technology won’t disrupt the flow of the game.

With public scepticism growing, particularly after a troublesome Women’s World Cup for VAR, the Premier League invited the FSA and fan reps from around the country to see their VAR Centre in West London.

“The setup is very impressive,” said Anwar Uddin, head of the Fans for Diversity campaign and former-West Ham United and Barnet player. “They showed us around the suites they’re going to be using and the booths where the VARs will be reviewing games.”

Supporters were shown the huge array of camera angles VARs will have at their disposal and taken through two example scenarios from the Premier League’s shadow VAR run last season.

“Two of the scenarios we looked at involved Vincent Kompany,” Anwar says. “They were both strong tackles where he was given a yellow card but likely to be upped to red cards after VAR review.

“I like to think I was of the Kompany mould – an old school, aggressive centre half – so VAR would definitely have had an impact on me. It really makes you think about your time as a player.

“No doubt I would have seen a few more red cards in my time.”

VAR Room Panorama

It’s not just players and ex-pros who have been thinking long and hard about the impact VAR will have on the game – many supporters have questioned the technology’s impact on the in-stadium experience and the match-day atmosphere.

Early iterations of VAR at the Confed Cup, and trials in the MLS and Eredivisie, left many supporters confused as to what was happening.

Communicating VAR reviews to the in-stadium crowd will be a challenge, particularly at grounds without big screens like Anfield and Old Trafford, or where not all spectators can see, it like St James’ Park. The Premier League says it wants to make sure supporters understand the VAR protocol.

Paul Hay, from Chelsea Supporters Trust said: “What should happen in the ground is that the scoreboard will display a message with the type of review while play is paused, something like ‘VAR CHECK RED CARD DECISION’.

“When the review completes the message will change to ‘VAR COMPLETE’ if the decision stands.

“However, if a decision is overturned by VAR then the screen will announce this and a clip of the incident in question will be shown on the scoreboards in the ground.”

“VAR philosophy is ‘minimum interference, maximum benefit’ which, of course remains to be seen!”

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Supporters heard that the Premier League is keen to avoid repetitious and prolonged use of VAR in games – the worst examples of which saw referees watching pitch-side monitors for minutes at a time during the World Cup last year, and this summer’s Women’s World Cup.

“It was made clear that unlike during the recent Women’s World Cup, the incidence of referees going to the pitchside monitor to review decisions will be kept to a minimum,” said FSA network manager Richard Irving.

“For the sceptics amongst us, there was certainly enough ambiguity to maintain our view, however, there remain many that are convinced that with the speed of the decision-making likely to increase, the worrying effect of delay to the game and the lack of information provided to supporters in a ground can be kept to a minimum.”

The Premier League is aiming to get VAR reviews down to 80 seconds and Richard told us its remit will be limited by the following principles to avoid the mission creep of VAR seen in other leagues and tournaments:

  • VAR can be used for “clear and obvious errors” or “serious missed incidents” in four match-changing situations: goals, penalties, direct red cards, mistaken identity.
  • VAR will automatically check those situations and a referee does not have to request a check.
  • The final decision is always taken by the referee.
  • The intention is to maintain the pace and tempo of the game.
  • The technology will not achieve 100% accuracy but will improve the key match incident accuracy which currently stands at 82%.
  • Players must always play to the whistle.
  • VARs are match officials and the usual disciplinary measures will apply.

Will that be enough to convince the naysayers? Anwar reckons concerns about VAR’s impact on football’s emotional core remain.

“I think it’ll be a good thing if VAR can eliminate those critical errors,” Anwar said. “When you’re giving everything in a game but it’s decided on simple refereeing mistake – it hurts as a player.

“We shouldn’t have promotions or relegations decided on these things.

“Having said that, a goal should be something special. When you score you lose yourself for a moment – players and fans.

“What’s that going to be like having that doubt in the back of your mind that it could be wiped out? Celebrating once, then half-celebrating again?

“We’ll have to wait and see, all I can say is I’m glad I’m retired.”

VAR day – what other fan groups said:

Thanks to PA Images and Shaun Wade for the images used in this article.