Love it or loathe it, no soccer fan could argue that Video Assistant Referee technology hasn’t had a monumental effect on the game at the highest level. For some, VAR was a much welcomed innovation, helping to reduce the amount of incorrect and unfair decisions against their teams. However, a very vocal opposition have pointed out how the new technology has spoiled the game for fans, with every goal scored subject to intense scrutiny by the officials, and some incredibly harsh offside decisions causing late heartbreak.
VAR looks like it’s here to stay whatever your opinion, and soccer looks set to be changed nearly beyond recognition in many areas. Whilst pundits and fans alike will continue to furiously debate the benefit of its introduction, let’s start by looking how we ended up in this situation.
The history of VAR
Soccer has never been immune to the march of technology or innovation, both on and off the pitch. If you showed a player from just 30 years ago the modern game dominated by statistics, nutrition and streamlined, colorful boots, they’d struggle to recognise it as the same sport.
Still, the pace of change over the last decade or so has been incredible to witness. First came goal-line technology, which was largely welcomed by fans in England, no part with memories of Frank Lampard’s ghost goal not given against Germany in the 2010 World Cup, despite clearly sailing over the line from the crossbar. The 2018 World Cup however would see the introduction of VAR technology, and spectators got their first look at referees running over to monitors at the side of the pitch to review their own decisions. VAR finally made its way to the Premier League for the 2019/2020 season.
How does it work?
In the Premier League, VAR is used by off-site referees reviewing every decision by the on pitch referee. Where a decision is given incorrectly by the match officials, the VAR team will contact the referee, and ask him to check his ruling. Ultimately, the final decision rests with the match ref.
There are four categories which VAR can overturn, goals, offsides, cards and “mistaken identity” where the wrong player is subject to a decision. There are of course a myriad of considerations which can affect these four categories, and this is where much of the controversy has been found, for example with offsides given for a fingernail being off, or goals ruled out for a handball minutes before.
In short, pretty much everything. Fans talk about their fear to celebrate any goal too enthusiastically lest it be cruelly ruled out by VAR due to some offence. soccer has certainly become more clinical, and teams are increasingly adapting their play to take note of how VAR may affect their plans.
Of course, many correct decisions have been given with the benefit of the technology, and fans can at least be assured that obvious infringements against their team should be spotted. However, in some cases, particularly with handball or close offside calls, certain decisions have been lauded as ridiculous and open to a wide variety of different interpretations.
The Impact on Sports Betting
Of course, soccer and sports betting is big business, particularly in the UK where it is estimated that millions are wagered on the sport each week.
For punters and bookmakers the introduction of VAR has offered up both opportunities and issues. On the one hand, as bookmakers try to be imaginative and adapt to the change a whole wealth of new VAR-betting markets have emerged, giving them an opportunity to cash in on the drama that the new technology no doubt instills.
However, for punters, particularly those who monitor and wager on in-play markets closely, having a highly contentious goal or decision ruled out can cause big headaches. Although bookies are aiming to soften the blow from this occurrence by offering promotions like money back as a bonus, the industry is still working out the best way to reassure punters that VAR will not prove to be too disruptive to the overall betting experience.
It is perhaps worth illustrating following the great man’s death, that both of Maradona’s goals against England in the 1986 World Cup would have been ruled out by VAR. The “Hand of God” goal would have of course been ruled out for handball, and the goal of the century had a rather strong foul from the Argentinians in the build-up which VAR would have picked up.
Is VAR set to rob us of such historical moments in the future? Or will the controversy around VAR itself create new landmark moments in future games or tournaments. Time will only tell, but with VAR showing no signs of disappearing any time soon, meaning that we’d expect to see some concessions from both sides. Rules might be changed to reduce so many harsh decisions, but fans better get used to VAR being used in some capacity.