Saturday’s derby in Tottenham was supposed to be another edition of a great rivalry filled with storylines. Instead it became a fiasco that brought back to life the debate around VAR. Has the sport become over reliant on it?
VAR is always at the center of controversy. Its adaptation to professional leagues has been tough even if it’s been used well at international tournaments.
From the start, fans and players have worried about what VAR meant for the sport. Would it become a stoppage fest like American sports or would it feel natural? In a way that no one could have predicted, it’s been a bit of both.
Across the world, VAR does its job maybe 80% of the time. It’s that 20% of the time that is always broadcasted. For that reason, everyone involved seems to overcorrect and make the implementation of this tool much harder than it needs to be.
Perhaps the best way to think of VAR is as a task by the sport to be perfect. However, by trying to be perfect, mistakes can only happen.
Instant replay is a fixture of American sports and has been for years now. Watch any NBA game and there is sure to be at least one stoppage for review.
Football has always wanted to be its own thing, separate from other sports. The sport has also had a rather conservative mindset when it comes to advancements in sports. It lags behind all other major pro sports in analytics and for a while, it did as well for replays.
When it was first introduced to the world at the 2018 World Cup, VAR became heavily scrutinized. Every play reviewed needed to be correct and efficient. Neither fans nor players were willing to give the tool breathing room.
Following the tournament, leagues across the World began to introduce the tool to their leagues. Despite the growing pains, VAR is a staple of modern football.
Even though practically every football fan is well acquainted with VAR, it seems like the use of it has gotten more complex. Refs in the same league aren’t in line with how and when to use it.
At the club level mistakes like these are more prominent while at international tournaments, there are few mistakes. This does make sense, there are less games at these tournaments and refs are more focused on their calls. The club season sees refs responsible for so many games in different varieties of importance.
All this combines to create an aura of confusion that makes games frustrating for all involved. The hope it brought at its inception has withered away to a screen that everyone fears.
Saturday’s game and the surrounding controversy highlight the issue at the core of any discussion about VAR. The tool itself has never been an issue, the use and reliance is the issue.
Twelve different checks happened on Saturday ranging from potential red cards to goal reviews. Putting aside whether these checks were correctly done, it’s insane to stop the game that much. Any natural flow and rhythm completely dissipates as the ref goes to check the screen.
Managers and players are seemingly frozen by it, constantly worried that any action will result in a review. Additionally, there’s a lack of credibility assigned to refs, as none of their decisions seem to matter if VAR is able to overturn it. This essentially makes the ref a glorified event manager.
Not to get into a constitutional argument, but this also brings the question of whether sports rules are hard set or whether the interpretation changes. In turn, how can the rules be applied fairly either way?
Red card decisions are the ultimate barometer for this discussion. In the laws of the game, there are set rules as to what constitutes a red card. However, it’s understood that refs are there to deem intention and whether the foul warrants it.
Just by needing the input from a ref, this becomes a personal decision that can be brought forth by VAR. The tool can’t be the arbiter, but it should try to bring clarity and eventually some balance. There will always be a difference in implementation by each ref, but all sports rules do.
A tool that was meant to bring clarity to the sport has only brought with it toxic consequences. Almost nothing is certain anymore and everyone is confused.
VAR clearly has its issues and may need an overhaul, but the sport is better for having it. Incidents like Saturday will keep happening, driving all those involved crazy, until the use is both curtailed and overhauled. Don’t get it wrong, football needs VAR, but it mustn’t use it as some sort of holy judgment.
Featured image: Getty