A Step Too VAR? How Video Technology Can Perpetuate Further Injustice
Written by @JamesMartin013
It was an historic moment. Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho had the ball in the back of the net, and wheeled away in celebration only to find the flag raised. On any other day, this would have dashed his hopes of doubling The Foxes’ lead and putting the FA Cup third-round replay against Fleetwood to bed. Not on this occasion: this was a fixture in which the ‘video assistant referee’ was being trialled, and Mike Jones duly informed on-field official Jon Moss that the goal should stand. Cue celebrations from Iheanacho, but also from most of the wider footballing community.
Were these celebrations premature? Certainly Iheanacho’s were not – he and his teammates were left standing around while Mike Jones pondered the tight call, and it was not until after the referee gave the signal that muted hugs and high-fives ensued. What of the jubilation further afield, where this intervention of VAR was lauded as the ushering-in of a shining new era for football? Unfortunately, those piling on the superlatives do not appear to have fully considered the consequences of the system. Some standard criticisms are well-rehearsed: amongst these is scepticism as to how well games will flow when they are prone to be interrupted by referrals, and it has to be said that the working of the technology in this instance did nothing to alleviate those concerns. However, it is a less talked-about consequence of the technology that provides the real sticking point.
…Here is the issue.
Imagine, for a moment, that Kelechi Iheanacho did not take on the early shot after running off the back of his marker, but instead opted to control the ball and work an even better shooting position by looking to go around the goalkeeper. By this time, the referee would have responded to his assistant’s flag and brought back proceedings – at this point, VAR is of no assistance.
Unless the ball has actually been put in the back of the net only to be (initially) ruled out for offside, an assessment of the linesman’s call is out of the question: to take the scenario where Iheanacho looks to round the keeper, the referee can hardly order all of the players to return to the exact positions they were in at the point play was stopped in order to see how the passage would pan out. Not knowing for sure that a goal would have been scored, even though the finish would surely have been a formality, the officials cannot award the goal even once the incorrectness of the offside call has been established.
Taking the keeper out of the equation is just as valid as the deft chip the Nigerian actually opted for, and would almost certainly have resulted in the same outcome, but this is disregarded under VAR – one gets the benefit of the technology, and the other does not.
There are two potential responses to this problem: one looks to dismiss it, the other to solve it. The solution that might be proposed is a modification of the situations in which the referee blows his whistle. Indeed, Graham Poll alluded to this as a consideration when giving his opinions in the immediate aftermath of the goal being awarded – the suggestion was that, in his position as a referee in a match including VAR, John Moss should have made sure he delayed his blowing of the whistle until after it had become clear whether or not Iheanacho would score.
In this way, the game would never be stopped prematurely on the basis of an incorrect decision from an assistant referee, and where the decision did turn out to be correct the ‘goal’ could be chalked off without much difficulty. However, neat as this sounds, it does not solve the problem.
Bearing in mind that the vast majority of offside decisions are correct, how long does the referee let an attack run for before he acknowledges the flag? What even constitutes an ‘attack’ which he should let run in the first place? In 2013/14, Liverpool travelled to The Etihad to take on Manchester City. They took an early lead, and looked to have carved out a great opportunity to double it when Raheem Sterling was put clean through on the counter. Such was the high line of the hosts, this occurred on the halfway line: the offside flag was erroneously raised. There is no obvious answer as to what a referee assisted by VAR should have done in this scenario; on one hand Sterling was clean through and the play should have been allowed to unfold, with the offside call left for assessment afterwards, but on the other hand receipt of the ball on the halfway line could hardly be said to constitute an attack. Had Sterling been offside, as the linesman believed, allowing the move to continue would have meant allowing an entirely pointless break halfway up the pitch. There are no workable criteria on which to judge when and for how long the referee delays acknowledgment of an assistant’s flag, and this solution duly fails.
With no solution, proponents of the technology have to look to simply dismiss the issue that is posed by the possible variation in circumstances surrounding offside calls. The principal line of argument is that, while some would-be goals will inevitably still be disallowed, VAR nonetheless reduces injustice by correcting the situations where a goal immediately follows a stray offside flag and consequently lowering the total number of wrongly disallowed goals. It would be churlish to deny that this argument is completely without merit. Certainly, it is at least arguable that a scenario where some wrong offside calls are corrected is preferable to one where none of them can be changed.
However, this is not as inevitable a conclusion as it sounds. The current situation, though it produces immense frustration on a fairly regular basis, can at least say that it makes all teams and all match events equally susceptible to suffering unfairness by way of refereeing error. This equality is, perversely, a form of fairness: it acknowledges human error as an inescapable part of the game, and ensures that these errors are not channeled into a few specific areas. Video technology, meanwhile, produces a further category of unfairness by only functioning to correct errors of a particular type. It has been shown that this flaw is inherent – were there an effective way for VAR to eradicate all refereeing mistakes, there would of course be no controversy. Given this, it has to be asked whether it is a welcome addition to the game. A match where one valid goal is mistakenly flagged for offside and another stands is a cause of great consternation to fans; a situation whereby one mistaken call was corrected and another was left to stand would surely provoke even more outrage.
This is not a fatal blow to the case for video technology. There are undoubted benefits of VAR, and if it was to be brought in on a more permanent basis then fans and players alike would no doubt adapt to it before long. However, the problem of offside goals at least gives cause for consideration: there is a danger of getting swept away on the wave of hype generated by Iheanacho’s goal, when really it showcased the flaws with video assistants as much as the advantages.
Follow James on Twitter @JamesMartin013