VAR – keep or abolish?

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) – there’s barely anything else which kept football fans around the globe busier than these three letters in 2019. So during the winter break, there’s finally time to look at this VAR with more detail and even more relaxed and without the normal hustle and bustle and not through particular club goggles. And of course, this will not be the text which turns everything for the better as there will be for sure different perspectives and opinions and examples to prove the opposite. Nevertheless, I’ll aim to present the ideal procedure from my point of view as I believe that the VAR will have a future. Did the world long for my opinion on this matter? Probably not but maybe it will be of some help to better judge objectively.

Inventory

Let’s start with a flashback to February 2017. Helmut Krug and Lutz-Michael Fröhlich present the new invention of the VAR to journalists (and those who ever dreamed to be one in childhood days, such as me) which will come to effect in Summer 2017 in the Bundesliga. Back then, I summarized the press conference for n-tv.

The most important aspects of my article were as follows:

  • Interference will only happen when “obviously wrong decisions” have been made.
  • only with regards to goals, penalties or send-offs (and when players will be mistaken for others)

In the article above, there was a careful optimism that the VAR would turn professional football for the better. And now, only three years later, everything is put to chaos, at least in the eyes of the media and some folks on social media.
How did this happen?

Maybe to start with a definition of words will help to point at the problem: The German word Videobeweis (video proof of evidence) is still the word of choice to name the VAR in Germany. And exactly this wording appears to promise something that’s simply not possible because the absolute justice and the “proof of evidence” for the right or wrong decision is simply not possible in football.
Situations such as fouls or handballs are often subject to interpretation, mostly there are reasons for as well as against a whistle at the same time.

And to also kill another myth right now: There’s no such 100% justice in other sports which are often taken into account as a comparison to make a point in football. This is particularly true for American football, however, somehow the interference of a video-assisted referee is functioning much better and is much more accepted by the TV-audience there.
Maybe, that’s also due to the fact that referees in American Football are in general much more accepted and their players aren’t misbehaving as much (including wild gestures with their hand and heavy discussions) and as if a wrong decision about throw-ins would mean the end of the civilized world for someone.
Another possible explanation (and here I am referring straight to American Football) is the bigger transparency. The scenes on the pitch are directly streamed to huge LED-screens so that everyone inside the stadium can clearly see them (and some scenes are even shown there already before it is obvious that the referees will have to check their decisions). The checked decisions are later clearly announced for everyone via the stadium-microphone by the referee. And the most important difference to football is: Besides “decision was right” and “decision will be rectified” there’s also “The Call stands” which means that the video captures do not clearly prove that the initial decision was wrong so that the match will continue with the decision previously made. Maybe this third option would be a helpful addition in football, too.

My personal history of my opinion of the VAR:
Before it was introduced, I considered a video referee a stupid and unnecessary idea. But mistakes happen, even referees aren’t always right and they do not make their wrong decisions on purpose (Hoyzer proves the rule) and it was part of my stadium experience to vocally blame the referees for their wrong decisions. This did only slightly change when I got my own referee’s licence in 2016, only calling the referees names got less.

But when the above-mentioned press conference in 2017 happened, I was on the hook. 
To rectify obvious mistakes, a high barrier before interference will happen and barely any changes inside the stadium. My opinion towards the VAR was a positive one.

And today? 
I still think that the VAR is, in general, a good idea but the way it’s currently implemented is rather “unlucky”. I was recently asked if I would keep or abandon the VAR in its current state and as is so often the case I answered with a clear “neither-nor” because I would really like to keep the VAR but also improve it. And in the following, I’ll try to describe how I imagine a better VAR.

It’s obviously clear:

  • Whoever is a militant opponent of the VAR today will not be a proponent after finishing reading this article.
  • To most of the shortly to mention aspects, there will be valid refutations. I do not have the one-and-only truth, the matter is much too complex for simple black/white discussions. 
  • This shouldn’t be the search for potential problems of the VAR but rather aim to help finding (if possible at all) possible solutions.
  • And I do not aim to find the most suitable solution which has the least impact to the stadium experience but will, however, add more justice to football than without any VAR.
  • And some aspects have maybe progressed too much to change them again (such as the Review Area) but I will nevertheless present them as I would imagine the perfect world with a VAR.

But let’s start with the basic necessities which are similar to the way they’re currently done. So there is not much need for change at all, but at least the procedure should change slightly from my point of view.

  • An interference must only happen when obviously wrong decisions have been made. 
    (I will later point out how I would “define” an obviously wrong decision)
  • An interference must only happen with regards to goals, penalties, send-offs (and mistaken identity when players are awarded a card)

But there are also two points which I would like to change or abolish:

  • The Review Area (which means the screen on which the referee can check their decision)
  • calibrated lines

There are obviously good reasons why both things were introduced earlier, however, I will explain later why I’d like to abolish them.

Which concerns are currently the most raised?

  • Emotions inside the stadium have been taken away, the cheering after a goal is no longer as it used to be.
  • Decisions are currently not only limited to “obviously wrong decisions”, it often appears as a constant search for reasons to deny a scored goal.
  • Similar decisions are the one week made by VAR A the one way and (maybe next week or even on the same matchday) by VAR B in the opposite way.
  • Many demand a sort of “Challenge” possibility for managers.
  • Decisions with regard to offside are ridiculous.

The refutation of the DFL is amongst other the interim result of the last season in which 40 wrong decisions could be rectified already during the first leg of the season. And despite all concerns regarding controversial cases, one should have in mind that oftentimes rectifications are made without controversy.
(Whether the numbers of the DFL are entirely correct would make another article worth but is not important for this article’s topic.)

So let’s draw attention to the relevant topics in more detail:

“Obviously wrong decision”

This will be a crucial point here. 
If this point is solved to the entire satisfaction of everyone involved, the VAR will be totally accepted by everyone (Spoiler: it will never happen!)
It’s not mentioned in the n-tv article, but I somehow still bear in my mind that the VAR should always draw a decision which would be accepted by 90/95 of 100 imagined people who know the respective rules of football. But maybe I remember it wrong.
Well, for sure it can also be the case that the VAR is one of the 5-10 persons with a different opinion but as the cellar in Cologne is equipped with more than one additional referee only, this should be the absolute exception. And even this 5-10 should be capable to notice that their opinion might not represent the majority.
So, the crucial point, in my opinion, is that the last decision should always be made by the referee on the pitch and interference from the VAR shall only happen if the decision made on the pitch is obviously wrong.
And how can we ensure that exactly this will happen?

A gold standard solution that guarantees the 100% right interpretation of the rules is simply not existent.

Fouls in football are frequently grey areas, the same is true for handballs. Not every contact is a foul, not every contact of the ball with the hand or arm is to punish accordingly. Offside will be discussed later.
On nearly every referee workshop there will be video-presentations of potential fouls or handballs were the attendees equally take the party for “Foul/Handball!“, “no foul!/no handball!” and “Can I re-watch the situation, please? And again? Hm, phew… so… it’s pretty difficult to tell“.
Well, for sure it’s impossible to summon a plenary in the cellar of Cologne for every controversial scene but referees with according experience (and particular guidelines) should, in my opinion, be able to tell according to the video scenes if a particular scene bears the risk to trigger discussions later.
And if they reach conviction after 2-3 slow motions that there will be a target audience for all three possible answers (yes/no/maybe): 
Get off! It’s neither an obviously wrong nor clear decision.

I didn’t follow the World Cup very intensively, however, according to my informants the VAR there was processed in a much better way, and was also more accepted by the audience (while still, some exceptions might prove the rule).
Many say this was the case because the VAR was triggered very defensively while the barrier to interfere was higher. Others say, the felt higher acceptance was due to the fact that there were more matches played in which the audience wasn’t emotionally involved as much as in club football. Maybe it was both.

Currently, it appears for many in the Bundesliga as if especially after goals the magnifying glasses are used to find scenes which allow denying a goal. The difficult thing accompanying this perception is that there are more case studies obvious and discussed, in which the VAR interferes while a majority of scored goals are however still checked by the VAR but without their interference.

Let’s do a little quiz underlining this felt perception:
How many goals were actually denied during the first leg of the current season in the Bundesliga and the second division?
Parameter: 315 matches (153x Bundesliga / 162x second division)
Allowed goals: 972 (492/480)

But how many were denied? One goal per match day? Two? Three? More? Less?
Or let’s put it differently if that’s more easy for you: How many goals per club during the first leg? 
Bonus question: How many of these goals were denied due to offside, how many due to fouls/handballs or anything else?
Well, think carefully.

Answer:
There were 35 goals denied during these 35 match days. 
20 goals in the Bundesliga, 15 in the second division.
(Source: I counted them myself using the match reports on kicker.de while I have to admit that I rely on their way of presentation in which they cross out denied goals in the match reports. And for sure only these goals are legit which would have been allowed by the referees on the pitch without VAR support. As an example proving the opposite just consider the three offside goals scored by Mario Gomez on matchday 15 of which two were denied without being checked and only one was checked by the VAR but with the same result (offside!) as judged by the referees on the pitch. These three cases are all not part of the above count as they would have been disallowed even without the interference of the VAR)

And of these 35 denied goals, 17 were due to offside (ten of 20 in the Bundesliga, seven of 15 in the second division), in the Bundesliga, there were additionally four goals denied due to fouls, four due to handballs and one because players entered the box too early at a penalty, another goal was denied because the ball was already out when flanked earlier.
In the second division, the seven disallowed goals due to offside are followed by five due to handballs, one was disallowed because the ball was out earlier (SVWW in Dresden) and one was actually scored by the referee himself who got shot and directed the ball into the goal. (Hannover 96).

If you add these 35 goals to the 972 allowed gaols, only 3% of 1007 goals were denied because of the VAR which makes nearly every 30th goal a disallowed by VAR case.
The often articulated “I can no longer cheer about goals as I want to because it might be denied by the VAR…“, might be subjectively reasonable, however, with one denied goal per club there’s statistically no proof for it.
While in the Bundesliga, there was no club who had more than 2 goals denied, with Fürth in the second division there is a club who had three goals denied. 

Well, at least with regard to “denied goals” the VAR appears to do its job reasonably well but I will come to offside with more detail later.

However, I had no chance to look into VAR interferences due to penalties or send-offs. But there were at least two situations in which one had wished for the VAR interference which however didn’t follow.

  • 4th matchday, 1.FC Union Berlin – Werder Bremen
    (Penalty after Klaasen was fouled)
  • 13th matchday, FC Schalke 04 – 1.FC Union Berlin
    (Penalty for Union after Andrich was fouled) 
    If you cannot remember the respective match situation, please use the search engine of your choice to find the scenes.

And this brings us again to the above-mentioned difficulty to define an “obviously wrong decision”.
From my point of view, both situations would have been to be classified as deliberative dives. The respective player starts his dive clearly before the first contact (Andrich) or stretches out his leg in search for a contact (Klassen) and in both situations, my feeling of justice at football games doesn’t want them to get a penalty awarded for their behaviour. I would have rather awarded them both a yellow card for their deliberate dives to elicit a penalty, however, as there actually was some sort of contact in both cases, I would have let them play on and don’t award them with a penalty or yellow card.

But would the VAR have interfered if the referee would have decided to let them play on? Rather not.
Are there any reasons to decide for a penalty here? Yes, because there has been some sort of contact.
Nevertheless, I believe that there would have been a clear majority for a “no penalty decision” if you would have been able to summon the above mentioned plenary of 100 people.

Injustices of this sort will always be around – and they are also common in American Football. They just changed a regulation concerning the video checks during the last season as there has been an incident during the playoffs. 
And … surprise…. this regulation doesn’t suit everyone in practice and demands for an amendment were already raised. Please keep this in mind, if you actually want to see the VAR abolished right now.
If you want to find out more about the history of the “NFL Instant Replay”, don’t hesitate to read this article… The whole VAR thing is around since 1976 and has been amended since every now and then.

Offside / abolish calibrated lines

To begin with: The current handling of the assistant referees to let the situation play on if there are any doubts and to wave their flag later (maybe after the ball has been cleared to a corner ball or if a goal was scored) might appear strange but is, in my opinion, the one and only right thing to do. Otherwise, a false flag-waving might destroy situations which you cannot re-build afterwards.
Especially in light of the just-announced amendments of the IFAB this will (hopefully) not be changed.
A brief summary: The IFAB also wants to adjust this handling into the “obvious wrong decision” handling. But how this will look exactly and if the calibrated lines will be abolished is yet unknown.

Also @CollinasErben put some thoughts into this topic:

After some very narrow decisions with regard to goals scored offside in the Premier League, in which the VAR started to piss the people off, the IFAB recently stated: Also at offside decisions, the decision made by the referee on the pitch has to be obviously wrong before the VAR will interfere. (1/10) https://t.co/SwqsjTRq38

— Collinas Erben (@CollinasErben) January 1, 2020

Who am I to disagree with these guys? Without them, I never would have become a referee myself eventually.
So, I do not really want to contradict here now but maybe come to a different conclusion, however, after thoughtfully taking another approach.

As elaborated above, half of the denied goals were due to offside decisions. And whoever has ever done the job of the assistant referee themselves (and even only at a youth match or in amateur football) or has done an according test online does exactly know how difficult it is to make the right decision when defending and attacking players move towards each other in an awfully quick match. It’s really a miracle how often the referees in professional football actually make the right decision though.

The difference between offside and foul/handball is that it’s (theoretically) a black-or-white decision. If it’s solved whether a player is actively or passively offside, a player can only be offside or not, there’s no grey area in between.
However, there are decisions made in an area of milliseconds and centimetres which barely cannot be checked with the current technology (frame per second, calibrated lines) and if so, then only in such a way that the spectator shakes his head in resignation.

And here, the IFAB will amend (if it’s really done that way) what also would have been my suggestion. If it’s exactly my suggestion or just pretty similar has to be waited for, but from my point of view, the fixation on frames and millimetres isn’t helpful at all and is not in line with the intention of the rules.
Because offside should be a “breach of rules” and a breach does in my opinion always include some sort of “intention” as a pre-condition. 
And if a striker during an attack is constantly checking if he’s at the same height as the defender but sometimes (as it happened in the case of Marco Reus) with his heel somewhere offside accidentally, this is for sure not, what the rule wants to hinder. At least not, if you need an adjustment in frames per second and a perpendicular to determine the right decision. 
(And to all penny pinchers: Of course, one can be unintentionally but tightly offside, but I really hope that I could make my point clear in this regard.)

What I wanted to say: 
Fouls are prohibited in football because one should not get an unfair advantage.
The use of the hand is prohibited in football because its use should not cause an advantage.
Offside is prohibited in football because a team should not get an advantage by parking their striker in front of the opponent’s goal.
(This is -frankly spoken- put simplified here)
But the intention of the rule is to not put a striker closer to a goal than an opponent’s defender. And of course, time added the offside trap as a tactical mean for the defending team to profit from this rule. But even then it shouldn’t be a question of whether the defender manages to pull his butt forward by another two centimetres.

So here, too, I would like people to trust the competence of the assistants and to stand by their decision – and only if it is “clearly and obviously” wrong, it should be overruled. And if there are any uncertainties between the one frame and the next and one has to check both because the actual moment of the ball contact is unclear though, the decision of the referee is by no means “obviously wrong”.
For sure, there are border situations in which the one VAR would determine a quarter of an upper-body as offside while another one would determine a third of an upper-body as same height (both situations are just examples, please choose your own) but it would still be better than the current handling which is simply not communicable.

I am very thrilled how the actual regulation /amendment of the IFAB will look like, but I hope for a clear improvement here.

Handballs

I think this is not a topic that is actually concerning the VAR. The rule itself is pretty complex and the same is true for the VAR. If for handballs the “obviously wrong decision” approach is applied as well, there should be another improvement (as far as possible for this rule in this regard).

Two examples from the first leg of the season in the second division which happened for the FC St. Pauli and which should clarify what I aim to point out here: 

  • Matchday 14: Erzgebirge Aue – FCSP
    James Lawrence gets the ball at his arm from a very short distance.
  • Matchday 15: FCSP – Hannover 96
    Josip Elez gets the ball at his arm from a very short distance.

Both decisions were pretty close and there are for sure reasons for and against a penalty.
Lawrence did have his hand a little bit away from his body, however, the distance to the striker at the ball contact is that close to make any judgment of intentions.
While Eliz had his arm close to his body, he, however, turned his body directly into the shot so that his arm enlarged his body space.

What I’d like to say: In both situations, there were arguments for and against a whistle, so I would have wished for no interference of the VAR.
Anyway, the VAR interfered in both situations and decided both times for a match-decisive disadvantage for the FCSP, which I have to admit for transparency reasons. However, it doesn’t change my initial argument.
If the decision on the pitch would have been against the FCSP, I clearly wanted him to interfere. (So… anyway, of course, I wanted him to because it was against the FCSP… but this would lead to far here.)

Abolish the Review-Area

To begin with: I am fully aware that checks of the referee at the screen are a tactical mean to signal the rest of the stadium that the referee on the pitch will make the very last decision.
Especially during hectically phases, maybe after a scored goal / penalty during additional time.
Nevertheless, I would wish for this unworthy drama to be completely wiped out.

If one follows my points raised above, it’s all about clear and obviously wrong decisions.
This has to be checked by the VAR themselves and it also has to be their sole decision. The team of referees should cooperate as such and trust each other. If the VAR tells the referee on the pitch that his decision was obviously wrong (and also delivers reasons and explains his decision) the referee on the pitch will absolutely follow the VAR in their decision.
Because he does exactly the same with regard to his assistants to determine offside. No referee will overrule their assistant concerning the question of whether a player was offside. 
There will be situations in which he will determine whether a player was actively or passively offside or if the ball was passed from the opponent but these are decisions which are made within a fraction of a second and which the assistant would make in the same way (if they are legit) after checking the screen.
I am totally convinced that if the referee will tell the VAR for which reason he made his decision, the VAR will exactly check the playback of the scene in this regard and if he’s then still claiming that the referee is wrong and telling him “No, you are wrong it’s clear and obvious and no grey area!” then the referee will follow the decision of the VAR.

But if one wants to keep the review area for tactical reasons, then please go ahead… However, one should clearly restrict the use of this area for exceptional situations because “obviously wrong decisions” can be determined by the VAR on itself and if the VAR cannot do so, it could not have been a clear and obviously wrong decision and there’s no reason to interfere.

VAR A makes a different decision than VAR B!

Simple answer: That’s life, deal with it.
Because also a referee on the pitch will determine some situations differently than another colleague would do.
Of course, a unified interpretation of the rules would be something to wish for but this will forever simply remain a dream for decisions which include a margin of discretion. But with a higher barrier to interfere one could potentially limit these things dramatically.

Challenge!

Nope, I think that’s stupid.
Okay, that’s not a valid argument, I have to admit but I cannot put my reluctance into better words.
Maybe it should be tested (If I remember it right, it has already been tested within one of the youth divisions, but I cannot find any proof for it at the moment) but in general, it would lead us back to the discussion about obviously wrong decisions. 
Because if only obvious mistakes are rectified, the challenge is obsolete because at obviously wrong decisions the VAR will interfere anyhow and if the VAR determines that it was not an obviously wrong decision there is no need for a challenge any longer because decisions with a margin of discretion would not be changed through a challenge. 

// Maik (Translated by Arne