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VAR is here to stay – so how does football fix it?

08:00 BST 06/05/2020
Technology was brought in to rid the game of controversial decisions, but its introduction has arguably caused more problems than it has solved

Before Covid-19 left its destructive impact on the Premier League, the 2019-20 season would have been remembered for the impact of VAR - video assistant referees.

Armpit offsides, fingernail handballs, clear fouls not reviewed, two-footed tackles given a virtual thumbs-up from an industrial estate 200 miles away - English football was never going to be the same again.

There were some television viewers that took pleasure in an added level of drama; the schadenfreude of seeing last-minute winners chalked off after a goal was wildly celebrated. But, while those sitting at home got the extra suspense of guessing whether Mohamed Salah's backside was half an inch further to the east than Christian Kabasele's, fans in the stadium were left baffled and bemused.

It takes a lot for football supporters to put their rivalries aside, but hearing all four corners of Molineux united in a rousing version of "F*ck VAR!" following a series of off-field rulings during Wolves' win over Manchester City in December only serves to illustrate how unpopular the use of technology has become inside stadiums.

Everyone agrees that VAR's first season in the Premier League has had its teething problems. “We’re far from perfect,” referees' chief Mike Riley admitted in November. “We’ve got improve the way that we do things.”

But VAR is here to stay, and officials around the world have to learn quickly to put their trust in a system that its biggest critics fear is ruining the essence of the game.

A starting point would be to go back to why VAR was introduced in the first place: to overturn incorrect refereeing decisions.

Back in December, Tottenham goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga being awarded a free kick for a wild throat-high lunge at Chelsea defender Marcos Alonso was a perfect example of where VAR was right to step in, award the Blues a penalty and make a decision that no one could disagree with.

Later in Chelsea's win, however, Spurs star Son Heung-min was sent off for kicking out at Antonio Rudiger in an incident that Jose Mourinho described as a "strange one" . The 'Special One' has been around the English game long enough now for fans and the media to know what he actually meant by that analysis.

In both cases, Stockley Park officials made the final decision, rather than on-field referee Anthony Taylor, who could have consulted the pitchside monitor himself. It was not until five months into the season that referees first started looking at video screens themselves despite the sport's rulemakers, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), stating that "only the referee can initiate a ‘review'".

The whole palaver has left former Premier League referee Mark Halsey confused as to why such a directive was not part of the protocol from the start of the campaign.

"I'm a great believer in the system and I think eventually it will work," he tells  Goal . "I know we're in its early stages and there are going to be teething problems, but if we, in the Premier League, follow the IFAB protocol in the way it's been written and in the way other leagues around the world are following it, then I don't think we would have seen as many problems as we're seeing at the moment.

"When it's a subjective call, it's got to be the on-field referee that views the monitor and makes that final decision. If he sticks to his original decision, everybody would accept that and respect it. But at the moment, we've effectively got two referees - one in Stockley Park and one on the field of play."

While the debate over how subjective decisions should be officiated will rumble on, the outlook for objective calls is not looking much better.

Goal-line technology has been a huge success since it was brought into the game back in 2013, with referees able to make decisive and quick rulings on whether the ball has crossed the line. Offsides and handball decisions, meanwhile, seemed just as clinical, but have since proven to be more complex.

For handballs, a new law was introduced at the start of the season that stated that "any goal scored or created with the use of the hand or arm will be disallowed... even if it is accidental", and VAR has been unscrupulous in spotting infringements.

IFAB has since clarified in a statement that from next season "accidental handball by an attacking player should only be penalised if it 'immediately' results in a goal or an obvious opportunity for the player and/or their team to score a goal". That should help clear up the rule, though it does add in a level of subjectivity as to what constitutes "immediately".

Offside decisions have proven just as frustrating, but it is far less obvious how to bring more clarity to a black and white call. Questions have been raised about the accuracy of the technology used to make such minute decisions, and Halsey believes that judgments should be made quicker.

"If it's taking six or seven looks and two minutes, then it's not offside," the 2002 FA Cup Final referee says. "When we're looking at a heel or toenail or an armpit, for me, you've got to use the naked eye. If you can tell in the first replay that someone's offside, okay.

"Let's go back to what we used to do and give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker. At the moment it's all in favour of the defenders, not the attacker. The technology is not 100 per cent [accurate]. We can't be 100% sure in those very tight situations when the ball is kicked."

While decision-making can be tightened up and improved, making the experience better for the match-going fan will be perhaps the most difficult hurdle to clear. Supporters have been left checking social media or messaging friends watching at home to find out what is happening in a game they have spent large sums to attend.

Official Manchester City supporters' club secretary, Kevin Parker, has seen his club benefit from as many VAR calls as they have been left reeling by them over the past 18 months. He had welcomed the introduction of technology, but now feels that communication with fans inside the stadium needs to improve.

"Even with VAR I thought nothing is going to be 100%, but I thought it would certainly improve the game and you would probably end up with teams getting decisions that were rightly there," he tells  Goal . "Ninety minutes into the season, people thought: 'What is this going to be like?'

"It just doesn't seem right to me that you can be at the game and you're not being informed at all about what's going on. You may not have the full process of what the referee or the Stockley Park people are going into. But I think that once the decision has been made, you would play back the incident and say:' The referee does not think that's a penalty, the referee does think [the foul was] outside [the penalty area]', or whatever."

VAR decisions are not currently shown inside English stadiums so that referees are not put under extra pressure from players or coaches after reviewing controversial calls. A change of heart, though, could ease the tension among bewildered spectators, even if it means the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United having to erect big screens at stadiums that are currently without.

But after a season that has left supporters, players, coaches and referees frustrated by the decision-making process, rule-makers need to listen to all stakeholders to ensure they get the process right.

VAR is going nowhere, but the fans will begin to stay away unless they see an improvement.