VAR: What’s all the fuss about and why isn’t it working yet?


5 Dec 2019257 Views

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Darren Watkins, managing director of Virtus Data Centres, writes that maybe the issue with VAR isn’t the technology, but the way it is implemented.

If you follow English football, you won’t have escaped the new buzzword in the sporting lexicon: VAR, or video assistant referee. Even if you don’t follow the game, you have probably heard the heated debates of football fans discussing this latest bit of technology to make its way into the modern football game.

For those who are unsure, the role of VAR is to assist the referee to determine whether there has been an infringement. Where a decision is unclear, the referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends that a decision or incident should be reviewed. The video footage is then studied by the VAR, who advises the referee, via a headset, what the video shows.

After viewing the footage for themselves, the referee can then take the appropriate action, based on clear information that may not have been available simply by being on the pitch.

With high-profile refereeing errors shaping the direction of matches and tournaments (remember the disallowed Frank Lampard goal in the England-Germany World Cup clash?), it’s perhaps unsurprising there is an appetite for this technology in the sport.

The world’s footballing bodies have toyed with the idea of VAR for a few years, but this season it seemed as though the English Football Association had finally caught up with its counterparts from the world of tennis, cricket and rugby – all of which have been using similar technology for some time.

VAR from ideal

But it hasn’t been an immediate success. Several months into the footballing season, it’s fair to say that sports news has been dominated by headlines bemoaning VAR decisions.

A key criticism of the current system is the delay between an on-field incident and the VAR decision being confirmed – that it ruins the tempo of the game, takes away the jubilation of celebrating a goal scored and diminishes the experience of watching in the stadium.

“The human element of the game is a critical component of it,” said chief executive of the Welsh Football Association, Jonathan Ford, in a report by The Guardian back in 2010.

“It’s the thing ultimately we end up debating. That’s the beauty of the game and it’s what keeps people talking in the pubs afterwards. I was worried you would end up with a stop-start situation where you review all decisions and I don’t see that as part of the game.”

There is definitely a fundamental lack of clarity. On match day, fans in grounds up and down the country have been left bewildered as to what VAR is actually checking, what the delay is for and why decisions have been made.

In tennis, the umpire, the crowd and the TV audience can – in unison – see what’s happening on a large screen and nobody can argue with the decision. In rugby, the conversations between the referee and the video referee are clear for all to hear, and everyone trusts that the system is working efficiently.

So, how do we tackle the criticisms? And how do we make it work better?

Technology’s fault?

Some point to failures in technology. In cricket, many pundits have questioned the accuracy of the Hawk-Eye system. That is based on principles of triangulation via visual images and data transmitted by video cameras placed at various locations and angles around the area of play.

For example, in a quarter-finals match at the Indian Wells Masters in 2009, Hawk-Eye mistakenly captured the second bounce of the ball instead of the first, resulting in the wrong judgment of the gameplay, which was eventually overruled by the human judge.

But the technology challenges aren’t there in VAR. The technology appears ultra-reliable. Indeed, no matter where a Premier League game is being played, VAR is always based in Stockley Park, on the outskirts of London. And, so far, there appears to have been no issues with latency between the stadium the match is being played in and the VAR studio – with communications instant and video replays being available to the extra officials in real time.

The technology that underpins VAR has functioned quite well with the fast demands of the modern game. And save for a brief loss of audio chatter (due to a faulty headset), we’ve had no lapses in communication between the on-field officials and those charged with casting a beady eye over proceedings in Stockley Park.

Who – or what – to blame?

If the problem isn’t the technology, why are we still distrustful of the system? The answer lies in human error.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that technology designed to eliminate the costs of human error in the game, to do away with players and coaches furiously protesting poor decisions, would ultimately be negatively affected by human error. But, when a system is created, implemented and overseen by humans, mistakes are never far away. Humans set the guidelines for the use of VAR and human officials dictate how and when it’s used during matches.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see accusations levelled at the footballing authorities of poor planning in the implementation of VAR, and it’s easy to see why. Perhaps the lack of clarification on who has the final decision on in-play incidents is the main reason for the delays? Do the on-field referees have absolute authority or do the VAR officials have the ability to overrule the original decision? It seems fans, pundits and, indeed, sometimes the officials themselves are not always entirely clear.

Although VAR promises more accuracy, fairer decisions and less injustice in the game, there’s certainly some way to go before people using the systems can keep up with the technology itself. This isn’t an issue that’s specific to sport; from advances in mobile to virtual reality, augmented reality and workplace systems, the technology is often available for some time before people work out how best to use it.

With the right guidelines and rules in place, technology-assisted sports can provide a better experience for both the game officials and players, who will feel assured knowing they have the technology to assist in gameplay.

Of course, it shouldn’t create a situation where referees are second-guessed at every step of the game, and worse, where it encourages game officials to get lazy about improving their skills.

VAR will never replace referees completely. After all, it is the mistakes humans make that provide for better entertainment and spectator camaraderie.

By Darren Watkins

Darren Watkins is managing director of Virtus Data Centres.