The beautiful game has always been about fluidity, free flowing plays and a display of voracious passion from both players and fans. A football stadium is rarely silenced when a game is ongoing. And yet, with the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), we see instances where fan and players are totally silent, as they stand about twiddling their thumbs awaiting the impending decision of the reviews. Now with VAR introduced in the Champions League, World Cup, and next season in the Premier League, is this really a morally sound decision?
With the implementation of VAR, the element of sport in football has been enhanced with referees now given a second chance to overturn their initial decisions with the expert advice from a panel of off field referees who have the benefit of various camera angles and multiple replays. The appointed referee can then pause the game to consult the video evidence at the pitch side and arrive at his decision.
This means greater fairness and accuracy in the sport with the opportunity to overturn key decisions, as VAR can be employed in decisions involving goals, penalty, red cards and cases of mistaken identity (giving a card to a wrong player – remember Andre Marriner wrongly sending off Kieran Gibbs instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain). VAR effectively prevents offside goals from standing, simulation in the penalty box from being rewarded with spot kicks and many other crucial decisions, at least in theory.
The 16 managers of the clubs in the first knockout round of the Champions League were invited to a meeting with UEFA chief refereeing officer Roberto Rosetti to discuss VAR. Only five attended.
Just last month, Paris St Germain were knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United and VAR was the focal point of the discussion in Neymar’s perspective.
“It’s a disgrace. Four guys who know nothing about football watch a slow-motion replay in front of the television.” said the Brazilian.
“What can he (Kimpembe) do with his hand while his back is turned?”
The referee reviewed footage of the ball striking the hand of PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe before awarding the visitors an injury-time penalty that gave them a 3-1 win on the night, and saw them progress on the away goals rule.
Just this week, Manchester City were awarded a penalty after Raheem Sterling’s shot hit Danny Rose’s arm in the 13th minute in the Champions League quarter finals.
“Football is always a very emotional game, and VAR is changing that a bit,” said Spurs defender Vertonghen.
Sergio Aguero could not convert his penalty from the spot and Tottenham went on to win the match from Son Heung-Min’s solitary goal.
“I think we all need to adapt. Sometimes you can’t do anything else than put your body on the line. It’s important that referees think as a football player sometimes.”
“You can’t even touch anyone. Before it was quite physical, but in a fair way, now you are too scared to get close to someone.” the Belgian defender added.
VAR does not eliminate all of the game’s imperfections, but rather, it is in place to ensure that a decision made by the referee does not define a game in negative terms. Ultimately, the final decision is still up to the human judgment, as the appointed game referee have to decide on his call based on his own interpretation of the video evidence. Therefore, the subjectivity of his decision still leaves room for human error that VAR exists to eliminate.
On the other side of the coin, VAR strips away the fluidity and flowing nature of football – the fundamental element of the game. Quite simply, the time taken to review a play undeniably takes away the momentum from a game. This is especially true for decisions that have been upheld by the match referee after the pitch side review, as teams are given the time to regroup and reorganise after the decision and play is restarted, eliminating any pressure and fluency that the attacking team had been building up.
VAR also strips away a certain divine aspect from the game. It may not be fair and most certainly painstakingly painful for those on the receiving end, but moments such as Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ World Cup goal and Thierry Henry’s goal that took France to the World Cup in 2010 have become the stuff of football folklore. These moments of incredulous misjudgment from the referees are the type of controversies resulting from human error in the moment that have become a part, albeit a less desirable element of football.
These are the moments that make our blood boil during the match, but moments that fans look back in amazement years after. VAR is unintentionally eliminating the essence of the game.
As with most things, we cannot always have the best of both worlds. For the seasoned soccer fanatics, the inclusion of VAR may seem as an intrusion of the digital age, an unwanted digitization of the sport that has transformed the beautiful game once filled with such free flowing emotions into a stop start affair where referees can have a second take on their initial decision by reviewing plays behind screens.
True, it is improving the accuracy of refereeing decisions, especially crucial decisions in the penalty box that can determine the fates of clubs and nations in the biggest competitions. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but the VAR is here to stay, both enhancing the element of sport through greater fairness and yet slowly taking away the soul of football.
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