“The beautiful game.” Ever since Pele uttered these words, fans of soccer all around the world looked at each other and went “yeah that sounds about right.” However, it wasn’t just the game that Pele was referring to. It’s the fans, decked out in their face paint and flags to support their teams. It’s the wonder of the situations that can arise, whether it be a 35-yard bicycle kick from Zlatan, Messi dribbling through half of the opposing team before slotting it neatly into the corner, or a surprise free kick while the goalie stormed out to argue with the referee. While not all of these may be seen as positive examples, it is part of what makes the game so, alive. Anything can happen, and we are reminded of that every time there is a controversial call, or someone gets away with something because the ref couldn’t see the play well enough. Humans are just that, humans, we make mistakes. That is part of what makes soccer feel so real, the right call is not always made, sometimes people do get away with fouls. That brings us to the debate that has been raging throughout the soccer community for years, what should we do about VAR?
WHAT IS VAR?
VAR, or Video Assistant Referee, is a long-debated method to cut out the mistakes and controversy of soccer. The VAR, which would be another referee just like one of the linesmen, would not be on the field. Rather they would be in a booth, looking at monitors following the progress of a game, and would be able to notify the head referee when they believe there was a mistake made, or a crucial moment that was worthy of reviewing, as opposed to a snap decision from the head referee. The head referee would then go over to the booth, located on the side of the field, and view the play from many different angles to ensure that the correct decision is made. To anyone who watches Football, this is not a foreign concept. In fact many sports use this, or a similar method, to help ensure that the correct decisions are made during a game. On the surface this may seem like a no-brainer, of course people would want things to be as accurate as possible, right?
There are two main arguments against VAR. The first of which, is the flow of the game. One of the main appeals of Soccer is that it is nonstop action. While there is certainly less scoring than there is in a game of Basketball or Football, there are also far fewer stops, or breaks, in the game. Aside from halftime and when someone scores a goal, there are no real forced stoppages of the game. If someone is fouled, yes, you have a free kick, but unless it was a particularly bad foul the team with possession is more than welcome to start play back up right away. When the ball goes out of bounds, you are allowed to throw it back in as soon as you can get the ball. This fluidity is a facet of the game that many people love, and are worried that it would disappear with the use of VAR to review plays.
Pro-VAR groups have heard these complaints, and it is widely agreed-upon that if VAR were to be instituted, it would only be used in the most crucial of moments, such as goals and straight red cards. This would avoid unnecessary stalling and breaks in the game, by using VAR only when the situation truly calls for an extra set of eyes or a better angle, as opposed to debating every time the ball goes out of bounds. The game would surely lose some of its older, more die-hard fans if VAR is made a part of the game, but it would also help ensure that the right call was made. A famous example, in the 2010 World Cup, was when Nigel De Jong of the Netherlands essentially karate kicked the Spaniard Xabi Alonso in the chest (pictured above). Now, intentional or not, this is obviously something that should be an immediate red card, however, due to the referee’s poor view of the foul, De Jong received only a yellow card and was allowed to continue in the game. This was an instance where the game was already halted, so VAR could have easily been used to contact the head referee to check the booth, to see a better angle and realize that the yellow card needed to be changed to a red.
The other main debate is that, the unpredictability of Soccer, the mistakes and controversies, are part of what makes Soccer the great sport it is. While people love to make sure that justice is served and their team gets all that they deserve, it cannot be denied that controversy and sports go hand in hand. Of course you hate it when a goal scored against your team was later found out to be offside, but then when you come back and play that team later in the year, it has that extra level of emotional tension to it. It’s like, yeah it’s great if you watch your favorite TV show and all your favorite characters live through it. But then in the second to last season, the main villain kills off your favorite character, and then when the good guys finally take him down, it has that much more meaning to it. That’s part of what makes some TV shows so enthralling and captivating, and real.
That is what some fans are afraid of. If every call is right all the time, yes there would be fewer hurt feelings and angry comments after the game. But, isn’t part of what makes a sport so great to watch? The rivalries that pop up between teams and players because of opposing opinions on a call that was made, it makes it human and relatable. You can see the players, the coaches, red faced and arguing their hearts out over a play, just like you and your friend who like different teams are doing at your house. One example, again from the 2010 World Cup, is from when England played Germany. The game ended 4-1 in favor of the Germans, which most would call a decisive victory. However, Germany was up 2-0, and England score to make it 2-1. Then, less than 5 minutes after their first goal, England scored again, or so they thought. The ball bounced off of the bottom of the crossbar down into the goal, just barely over the line, and was immediately tossed out by the German goalkeeper attempting to make a save. The goal was not counted at the time, though after the game it was looked at through many different camera angles and the verdict was reached that yes, it should have been a goal. Of course England was upset, thinking they’d been cheated out of a chance to get back into the game, immediately tying after going 2 goals down, momentum was on their side. However mad fans and players were at the time, the next few games between the 2 European giants were some of the highest selling games in either country’s history, no doubt due to the British desire for revenge after being cheated on the world stage.
Though thoroughly debated over many years, VAR has remained a non-factor in the majority of domestic league. However, this season, our very own MLS will be incorporating VAR into it’s everyday officiating. There have been several “trial runs” of VAR in recent history, including this summer’s past Confederations Cup, but this will be the first time the MLS has used it. It is perhaps the most logical of places to start, being that in America we already have video reviews for Basketball, Football, honestly most sports except for Soccer use it to a degree. I believe that this is an excellent chance to test it out and to let people see how little or much VAR will actually affect the way the game is played. There is no way England’s BPL or Spain’s La Liga would be the first to implement this strategy, as many Europeans are opposed to VAR. However with it being used in a country that already uses these sort of methods, and a fan base that is growing, but not necessarily as stuck in their roots as some of the European countries, it gives the European leagues a chance to observe how it works, not just in theory, but in actual everyday use. They can then use those observations to further their own discussions and perhaps finally put this debate to rest.
Personally, I think that as long as it is kept to the crucial elements of the game, such as goals and hard fouls, VAR is a great addition. It will take quite a bit of tinkering to figure out exactly what parts of the game are reviewable and how long referees may take to review them, but at the end of the day I see VAR as a natural progression in the nature of the sport.