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Virtual Insanity…The VAR problem

October 6, 2017

In the summer the FIGC made the move, along with the German Bundesliga, to use video assistant referee (VAR) to help eradicate the inconsistencies from the game. My initial thought was it would sterilise the game and deprive it of those contentious talking points. For a moment imagine what would’ve happened had this been used when Geoff Hurst scored his second in the 1966 World Cup Final. Would England have won the game? Sir Geoff wouldn’t be the proud holder of the only player to have scored a World Cup Final hattrick. Similarly, Thierry Henry’s handball for France against Ireland in the 2009 World Cup Play Off would possibly, been spotted and thus footballing history would’ve been altered. I say, “possibly spotted” as the use of VAR this year in Serie A hasn’t always been a smooth, technological advance, as we’ll find out. Nevertheless, these are the decisions which make us rant, scream and, if I’m French and celebrating qualification to the World Cup on the back of a missed handball, deliriously happy. Referees in Serie A are usually viewed by the fans, a superstitious and almost paranoid bunch, as corrupt until proven otherwise. The exception to this opinion appeared to be legendary referee, Pierluigi Collina, and it wasn’t until he retired that the Italian media turned on him, but I digress, the use of VAR was supposed to help alter that opinion.

For those of you not in the know regarding how and when the VAR can be used, here goes (there are some Serie A referees who would benefit from reading this too);

  1. Mistaken identity – The referee cautions or sends off the wrong player, or is unsure which player should be sanctioned.

  2. Goals – The role of the VARs is to assist the referee to determine whether there was an infringement that means a goal should not be awarded.

  3. Penalty decisions – The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with the award or non-award of a penalty kick.

  4. Red card incidents – The role of the VAR is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made in conjunction with sending off or not sending off a player.

The use of VAR has mostly been positive, over the opening weekend of the season during the Napoli/Verona, Sampdoria/Benevento and Inter Milan/Fiorentina games, it was used effectively to confirm goals and award penalties. On the same day a Crotone player was sent off after a foul was initially only deemed worthy of a yellow card. As we know during the same weekend the first VAR decision made was at J Stadium as Cagliari were awarded a penalty against Juve. A slightly contentious decision by the referee as Alex Sandro certainly did step, albeit slightly, on the foot of Duje Cop. Buffon saved the penalty (an awful penalty attempt, by the way), the question is was it a foul? The referee was right to use VAR but on this occasion, I don’t think he made the correct decision, Sandro certainly didn’t impede the player to the point where he wasn’t able to move into a goal scoring position or control the ball sufficiently.

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You’ve read the rules, all straightforward, no? It’s also useful to know that a player can be cautioned for protesting for the VAR to be used, like encouraging the referee to book someone after a foul. Now I’m certainly no Serie A expert, outside of Juve and maybe the odd round of goals I come across on Twitter, I won’t go out of my way to watch a game live, that’s just me. However, I’m sure this has happened before now because we all know what modern football is like; I guarantee you players have already been protesting furiously for the referee to consult the VAR. Atalanta players were haranguing the referee after Mandzukic’s ‘goal’ on Sunday (more on that soon). Reverse the roles in the same game, Alejandro Gomez clearly dived, or I should say fell over because of minimal contact (basically a dive), there wasn’t any significant protest from Juve at the time and not when the resulting free kick was poorly defended and they scored their first goal, as Atalanta did after Juve’s third goal. If Mandzukic’s goal had stood the game would’ve been over and Juve would still be top of the league. In my opinion Atalanta were fortunate to be level at any point, yes they’re due credit for their character after being two down so early, but they were only in the game with help from the referee, the love-fest with Atalanta in the days following the game is a little over the top. I admire their league place last season and their performances so far in the Europa League, but it’s all gone a little mad this week. Incidentally I disagree with the decision to award Juve a penalty late on in the game, again another dubious VAR decision. The point we learn from this is it seems the fact the decision is ultimately in the hands of a human is the problem, I’ll explain in more detail below. We also must think about the referee in this situation, he would lose some pride and some questions around competency could be raised (remember the fans’ opinion of referees in Italy); he has to overturn his original decision, one would think if he cannot make a sound split second decision (a skill in itself) how many more has he got wrong over the years and why is he second guessing himself? If he awards a penalty in real time, there’s very little chance he’ll overturn it.

The big issue I see and it’s certainly open to interpretation (never a good thing where rules, and potentially goals and league places are concerned) is when a goal has been scored after a foul has been committed. Going back to the Atalanta/Juve game and specifically Mandzukic’s goal which was ruled out because of a foul after the referee consulted the VAR, the foul occurred a full 15 seconds before the goal was scored, thus giving Atalanta plenty of time to prevent it. The question is here, where does one draw the line with fouls leading up to goals? How far back in the game do we go? This could get out of hand and lead to all sorts of protestations both on and off the field. Either way on this occasion the use of VAR was only considered because of the protests by the Atalanta players, you’ll remember this is a bookable offence now.

 

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There were more problems during another Juventus game, this time away to Genoa in late August, having taken the lead courtesy of a Pjanic own goal after 19 seconds, Genoa were awarded a penalty by the VAR, again the decision was questionable, it appeared Andrey Galabinov was stretching for the ball and Rugani clipped his ankle. Having originally not given it the referee, clearly not convinced by his decision, consulted the VAR. The problem with this is twofold, first it wasn’t a penalty, the second is the player was offside at the time. Upon review the referee would clearly have been able to spot both. Fast forward to later in the half, another dubious decision, this time a handball, and another penalty, this time in Juve’s favour. The common theme with these types of decisions, including Juve’s penalty at Atalanta, is we are relying on the referee, with the benefit of a replay, to make the correct decision. This is obviously subjective but I am always willing to be pragmatic about the situation, if he makes the correct decision, whether for or against Juve, it’s fine by me.

There is also the issue of exactly when it should be used, I’ve mentioned the disallowed Mandzukic goal because of a foul around 25 minutes before it, but there have been clearer cases where penalties should’ve been given at the time of foul. I am referring to the game between Fiorentina and Atalanta (them, again!), two penalties should’ve been given to Fiorentina, no question, one for a shirt pull in the box and one for a diving lunge by the keeper against an oncoming forward. Both penalties, but no VAR consulted. Again, we are relying on a human making the decision to use it and using it sensibly to make the correct decision. It’s by no means a perfect system but one, given time, will be more refined. However, I think some clarification of the rules surrounding where the cut off point is for a foul leading before a goal, there should also be some clampdown on players protesting for its use; let the referee do his job. This in hope rather than expectation as the FIGC are known to be both inconsistent and unprofessional at times.

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Taking a couple of quotes from Juve it seems not everyone is okay with VAR. After the Genoa game Buffon said “We were told it would be used sparingly, in a fair and logical manner. Instead, it’s like we’re playing water polo. It’s making the game ugly.”, quite right, who wants to watch water polo?! After Sunday’s game, Allegri said “If we want football to be a sport that is no longer a sport, then use VAR on every incident. However, if we get to March where every point becomes decisive, then games can last three or four hours.” Allegri also referred to video replays in US sports. Interesting one, as an avid US sports fan I can see how the use of instant replay technology works in conjunction with the game, there are natural stoppages in play and having one or two more per half doesn’t seem so bad. Football is a different game, we’re not used to stoppages like this where absolutely nothing happens. In rugby, fans are kept up to date with what is happening via the stadium address system where they can hear what the referee and VAR are saying, something for the FIGC to consider, it would also help to eliminate some of the conspiracy theories surrounding referees, their actions and motives.

So, my initial reservations of VAR taking the life and talking points out of football have been blown out of the water. If the first seven weeks of the season are anything to go by it has created more talking points than ever before. The real uproar will be when a league title or cup win is decided by VAR.

 

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  • Zio Facciatosta

    Look back at the Mandzukic decision. First, Gomez came after Lichtsteiner at full speed, whereas if Lichtsteiner did not extend his arm to protect himself, Gomez would have taken him down. At that moment, that play was in full view of not only the referee but the assistant referee and the fourth official. The three were in a triangle and the play was in their view. Yet, not one of them reacted to the play and 15 seconds later, goal scored. The incident though was shown on replay after replay of the goal. This is when the VAR reacted. The dissent by the Atalanta players bought time for the VAR to react to a single episode as shown by the replay, not the totality of the play. Yes, contact was made. Who caused that contact to happen? Gomez went after Lichtsteiner like a madman. He initiated the contact. Gomez is also good at play acting, as was seen with the foul call that lead to their first goal. With the exception of calling offside, the game is not played in snippets that can be captured by a single photo.

    The other problem with VAR that was mentioned in this article is the second guessing. In the NFL, referees have become indecisive, mostly due to reliance on video review. How often have viewers scratched their heads that an NFL referee could miss a play in front of his eyes. That will happen with soccer. Are referees infallible? Not even close but the beauty of the game is its flow. The review of the penalty call had the same effect as calling a timeout when a player lines up for a free throw in basketball. Do not question for a second that it was not part of the poor penalty kick taken by Dybala. It certainly took him off focus, off rhythm.

    I was not a fan of VAR when it was introduced and nothing has convinced me otherwise. It will ruin the game.

    • Thanks for your reply. I agree with your view on the Mandzukic goal as mentioned in my article, the protestations from the Atalanta players forced him to use VAR. Now I’m not saying it wasn’t a foul by Lichtsteiner, but no one noticed it at the time, play carried on and we scored a legitimate goal from it. Had the goal arisen directly from the foul then this is a different story.
      Again, regarding stoppages, FIGC would do well to incorporate a system like in rugby where fans can listen to the discussion. It’ll never happen though, can you imagine them agreeing to that?!

      • Zio Facciatosta

        The call on whether Lichtsteiner fouled Gomez is subjective. For me, no foul as the one who created the contact was Gomez. For others, it was a clear cut elbow, which was not so clear as there were many who commented that the contact was with the forearm. So even after review, there is no clear consensus. My thing is that it was in plain view of three officials on the field, each with a unique and good angle on the play. They also know Gomez and players like him do not get all of their play acting called upon. But now we have another voice with the VAR, one that we have seen so far this season is trying to establish his existence and at this level, each match has a referee inspector with his own opinions. So instead of working for the game and the players, referees have too many factors that not only influence their decisions but create a level of indecisions. This has happened in the NFL and will do the same for soccer.

        • Yes the whole topic is subjective, many will agree and disagree with us here. You’re right though, those outside influences of the fourth official, linesman and VAR all play their own part in influencing the referee. Unless we’re able to hear and see what is going on behind the scenes we’ll never have a transparent view of the rationale behind each decision.

      • Mixalis Neskis

        Football is like it or not a contact sport. A lot has to do with the sheer mass of the players examined and their acceleration in any given case. If for example , someone like Caldara man marks Dybala, the same contact has a very different end than man marking someone like Lukaku.On another example, if a player runs towards the corner flag in full speed, he is more likely to be send flying by a contact, in comparison to him walking with the ball. One can understand the circumstances only in real time because VAR relies only on visual replay, no sound, no feeling of the situation. That is why, in my opinion that is, it should not be used when it comes to fouls. Offside / Goal / Handball / Corners / last touch / Penalty etc. is all fine, but to decide if a yellow is in fact a red card just from a replay, or dissallow a goal because of contact that could or could not be a foul defeats the purpose of the game.
        All in all, if a minor incident (a foul in the middle of the park) threatens to change the route of the game(goal dissallowed) it should not be examined at all.

  • Dybala

    Does Douglas Costa still play for Juventus?

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