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Technology in Sport: is football lagging behind?

Together with the usual transfer speculation this week’s football news has been dominated by the introduction of Video Assistant Referees (“VARs”) in England.

VARs have slowly been introduced into the sphere of football. Rugby union has implemented television match officials (TMOs) since 2001, cricket has benefitted from Hawk-Eye since 2001 whilst the 2006 US Open was the first grand-slam tennis tournament to use Hawk-Eye. Football, however, has only recently started to accept this role of technology within the sport, but it is likely to stay.

What is VAR?

Sports Shorts has previously published a guide to the VAR technology and how it can be used and will continue to track developments during the initial stages of its introduction into the English game.

To summarise, Video Assistant Referees are trained match officials who review incidents on a screen and report to the match day referee as to the outcome of the incident. VARs can only be used in four “match-changing” situations: goals, penalty decisions, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity by the referee.

However, VARs can only review an incident where the match day referee draws the outline of a TV screen to notify the VAR, players and spectators that an incident will be reviewed. The VAR then assesses the incident via a monitor and reports back to the referee who will make a decision based on this assessment. Players may be booked if they aggressively mimic the referee’s gesture to implore him to call for a VAR decision.

VARs are currently used in every game played in the Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, Portugese Primera Liga, Australia’s A-League, South Korea’s K-League and in Major League Soccer in the USA.

VARs were also used in the Under-20 World Cup, which saw England win the World Cup for the first time since 1966.

More recently, perhaps tentatively, VAR technology has been introduced into English football. It made its debut in an international friendly at Wembley Stadium between England and Germany in November but it was not called upon. Its use has broadened, making its debut in a competitive club match in England in Brighton’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup third-round contest as reported in a recent Sports Shorts post. Glenn Murray scored the game-winning goal against his former club in the final minutes of the game, prompting opposition players to appeal for handball. As a result, the VAR was used to clarify that the ball came off Murray’s knee, not his hand: a correct and fair outcome. A VAR was also used in the 0-0 Carabao Cup Semi-Final clash between Chelsea and Arsenal.

What is the future for VARs in football?

France’s Ligue 1 has committed to using VAR technology next season as well as Spain’s La Liga. On 22 January, the International Football Association Board (who oversee the laws of football) will convene in Zurich to vote on whether to introduce VAR across elite football. This could pave the way for VAR to be used at the 2018 World Cup in Russia this summer.

It is clear that VAR has gained traction in the last year and it is likely to become a common feature in the game of elite football. According to Mike Riley, the referees’ chief in England, 96% of referee decisions are correct, with 4% wrong. Riley believes that VAR can add value to the game, estimating that it will reduce the percentage of referee errors to 2%, by half. This is quite a substantial decrease and should justify the introduction of VAR in football providing that it does not disrupt the flow and pace of the game, which is unlikely given that the use of VAR is carefully limited to four scenarios.

Whilst the use of VAR ensured that Glenn Murray’s goal against Crystal Palace stood, it has been criticised by a number of players, who claim that it does not grant the clarity it seeks. Crystal Palace’s James McArthur claims “we [have] half the dressing room saying it is a goal and half the changing room saying it is not. Even that is not clear cut”Gianluigi Buffon, the veteran Italian goalkeeper, thinks that VARs are “making the game ugly” as if footballers are “playing water polo”. Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira echoes this sentiment: “it’s a disaster. It’s all a big jumble. The players do not know any more whether or not to celebrate after a goal. A lot of emotion and passion has been lost”.

One fan tweeted after the Carabao Cup semi-final: “this is why VAR should not have a place in football. Please, keep football human and clean by keeping technology as far away as possible from the beautiful game”. Graham Poll, a former Premier League referee, believes the use of VAR was in fact overused in this game – it was called upon four times by Martin Atkinson.

As VAR is introduced into the world of football, there may be teething problems. Officials will need to familiarise themselves with the technology and experiment with how it is most suitably and effectively used in the expectation that the sport can be improved with the inclusion of this technology. Other sports do seem to benefit from its use, but even in rugby where TMOs have been a part of the sport for over a decade, criticism still persists: “democracy has no place on a rugby pitch. The referee is the boss. Or he used to be”.

Perhaps football has arrived a little too late to the party.

© Copyright 2022 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume VIII, Number 16
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