Pros and cons of VAR in football

String of mistakes has put new technology under the microscope

A referee checks VAR monitor
A referee checks the VAR monitor in an England v Italy game at Wembley
(Image credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The English football referees’ body has apologised to Arsenal after “human error” was to blame for an incorrect VAR decision that allowed Brentford’s equaliser to stand in last weekend’s Premier League game.

Former top referee Howard Webb, who is now in charge of Premier League officials, also apologised to Brighton after they had a goal disallowed for offside against Crystal Palace because VAR guidelines were wrongly drawn.

The twin controversies have put VAR “once again under the microscope”. The technology is facing scrutiny “from fans and managers alike”, said the Independent after a survey for Sky Sports found that 67% of fans believe VAR makes watching football less enjoyable.

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1. Pro: can help referees

VAR was introduced to football in the early 2010s to minimise human error and help referees make the right decision. Standing for “video assistant referee”, it allows certain incidents to be reviewed by the main referee or by the VAR team, helping the correct decisions to be made.

The VAR team helps referees in four scenarios: goals and offences leading up to a goal; penalty decisions and offences leading up to a penalty decision; direct red card incidents and mistaken identity, explained Fifa. A wrong decision in these scenarios can swing a game, so supporters hope it will make the game fairer.

2. Con: disrupts the game

When there is a potential goal or penalty, the referee has to pause the match and review the footage on a screen. Sometimes, this process takes several minutes, which disrupts the flow of the match and means players stand around waiting, which can impair their performance. VAR is “taking the spontaneity away from the game”, wrote former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore for Caught Offside.

“It’s clear that football is fairer but it’s also clear that VAR has had an impact on the flow of the game,” David Elleray, a former Premier League referee, told Four Four Two. “Inevitably if you are going to stop the game to look at a replay, that involves stopping the flow of the game.”

3. Pro: more excitement

VAR has “helped to add an extra layer of excitement to matches”, said Digital Mahbub. It argued that “the suspense of waiting for a decision from the VAR officials can often be just as thrilling as watching the match itself”.

Legendary referee Pierluigi Collina also feels that the technology increases the thrill of the game, said Goal. “I don’t think VAR kills the excitement of a goal celebration, if anything it increases the level of excitement,” he said. “You get to celebrate twice, when scoring and when it’s confirmed.”

4. Con: produces mistakes

VAR has not eliminated mistakes from the game. Last weekend alone, offside checks surrounding key goals “cost Arsenal and Brighton victories” while Chelsea were “controversially not awarded a penalty in their London derby against West Ham”, said the Independent.

Referees chief Howard Webb contacted Arsenal and Brighton to “acknowledge and explain” the “significant errors”. Last December, the BBC noted that Premier League video assistant referees had made a number of “incorrect interventions” this season and “missed another six incidents when they should have stepped in”.

5. Pro: greater player discipline

Supporters of VAR argue that the enhanced scrutiny of players has led to greater discipline on the field. “Behaviour is better,” Elleray told Four Four Two.

He added that there has been a “significant reduction” in diving, a “general reduction in players mobbing and arguing with referees” and “fewer players getting away with violence on the field behind the referee’s back”.

6. Con: dehumanises the game

“One of football’s charms is that it’s an unpredictable sport”, where “anything can happen” and “part of this is due to human error – whether it’s a mistake by a player, coach or referee,” said Digital Mahbub. VAR “takes away from this element of unpredictability” and detracts from the “human element of the game”, it added.

This dehumanising element could lead to poorer refereeing, believes Collymore. “We’ve now got a situation where referees are having their natural skills blunted because they know they can always rely on VAR,” he wrote.

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