Beyond clear and obvious: The VAR dilemma
The start of the 2022/23 A-League Men season has been one that has produced many new talking points. But a frustrating one has predictably reared its ugly head once again. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system has made its impact felt. The much-maligned technology is currently offering more questions than answers for Australian football.
Daniel Elder shows a red card to Hiroshi Ibusuki while his teammates protest his innocence. (Adelaide United)
It only occurred in 2017, but it feels like a lifetime ago when the A-League Men became the first professional top-flight competition to introduce the VAR in its operations.
Most major leagues around the world have adopted the system since. Its goal is to correct clear and obvious refereeing errors in real time while eliminating some of football's grey areas. Few can argue against the system’s noble intentions.
Unfortunately, there has been a big gap between ideology and execution. Football, particularly in Australia, finds itself in waters that have never felt murkier.
Take round three, for example, when Sydney FC hosted Adelaide United. Reds forward Hiroshi Ibusuki decided to slide in to get to the ball before Sydney midfielder Anthony Caceres. The forward got there comfortably, but his momentum meant he collected Caceres after he had poked the ball away.
When fans heard referee Daniel Elder blow his whistle, most would have expected a warning, maybe a yellow, if the referee wanted to stamp his authority. Everyone was shocked when he produced a red card, the moment providing the VAR with a litmus test of its effectiveness. After all, it was presented with a situation its mission is aimed to combat, a clear and obvious error.
The Reds bench was incensed when VAR official Kurt Ams did not recommend Elder review his decision. Commentators were also left perplexed, and even usually one-sided Sydney punters were stunned.
Adelaide rescued a point, and the red card was later rescinded. But the fact remains, a clear and obvious error that had everyone unanimously up in arms was allowed to stand, which heavily affected how both sides played out the football match.
A week later, the usually excellent Alex King also made what seemed to be an error. He awarded a penalty to Sydney despite Robert Mak seemingly initiating contact and fouling Macarthur defender Matt Millar first. But the VAR again did not request the referee to review his decision, and the Sky Blues subsequently opened the scoring.
As he usually does, King recovered and officiated the feisty match at a high standard. Later in the first half, Jonathan Aspropotamitis miscontrolled the ball and fouled Patrick Wood in his recovery. But King decided that Wood was too far from the goal to make it a clear goal-scoring opportunity, thus a red card. Yet, the VAR disagreed.
Official Shaun Evans summoned King to the screen. After being shown different angles, King decided to overrule his original decision and send off the Macarthur defender, much to the home side's dismay. Dwight Yorke and his staff were rightfully left feeling like they were on the wrong side of poor VAR decisions twice in one night.
It is important to remember that a referee's job is just that, a job. Much training goes into it; most of the time, the workers make good decisions. Few 'clear and obvious' errors are committed by referees each week. Using VAR should be the exception, only used when necessary, not the rule.
Like with any job, referees will make mistakes; it is inevitable. The difference between the average person and a referee is that a small circle of people will notice an everyday worker's error. However, the referees' will be broadcasted and scrutinised by fans, players, and coaches.
Most stakeholders mentioned above will say they would happily live with refereeing errors. In most cases, they are not blatant or glaring; throughout a season, they even out. When technology like the VAR is available to eliminate those glaring errors, and they remain ignored, fans, players, and coaches get rightfully angry.
In 2022, it feels like we have it all wrong. The concept was never meant to be two referees looking for the same thing, one in person and one via a screen. The referees running the lines are present to help the match referee officiate the game in real time.
New South Wales-based grassroots referee Yianni Apotsis spoke to Front Page Football about the current use of VAR and reflected that sentiment.
"VAR is supposed to be ‘assisting’ the referee. Otherwise, the process gives the impression that VAR is refereeing the game, and it's not supposed to be," he said.
The VAR should look for clear and obvious errors, not their adjudication of the on-field referee's call. When the referee gets called to the screen for something that is not 'clear and obvious,' everyone involved gets frustrated. Instead of making decisions clear in black and white, new shades of grey are invented.
A referee being called to the monitor is under the impression he is looking at a clear and obvious error they have committed. For good or for bad, that fact may make them more inclined to flip on their original decision, even if what they saw and called real-time was correct.
But the VAR also needs to provide transparency for stakeholders in other ways. While these checks are occurring, players, coaches, and fans at the venue and watching at home are unaware of what is happening and why a stoppage may take a prolonged time. A frustrating, unclear decision can hugely affect the game's flow, players' attitude, and the product presented to fans.
To counter that issue, Apotsis brought up an example he noticed in the Korean league, where a referee used the technology whilst being mindful of the amount of time it took.
"I recall the K-League having a directive - or it may have been only one referee who utilised VAR in such a way - that the process only took 15 seconds. If he was being asked to review a decision, he was going over to the screen every time. No time was wasted waiting for VAR to speak into the comms. I’d like to see that implemented in the A-Leagues," Apotsis said.
As a collective league, the powers that be need to ask themselves, is this system adding or subtracting from the game? Most stakeholders, having experienced the frustrations outlined above in their contexts, would argue the latter.
Apotsis admitted that lately, it has felt that VAR has made it more challenging for the decision-makers on the field and that fans' frustration is directed toward the system. He stresses that fans are unaware that there is more to how the referees use the technology.
"It is important to note here: there are FIFA and FA directives about this that our elite referees would be aware of, that we are not privy to. We don’t know how VAR is utilised within a training session and what that training looks like," he added.
Other than reinforcing that the VAR must only intervene when a clear and obvious error is committed, a potential solution could be making the dialogue between the referee and VAR available when a decision is being adjudicated in real time. It's a concept that is normal in other sports for the fans in the stadium and broadcast. The big hurdle is that the international standards for using the VAR do not currently allow that to happen. Fans are only treated to that insight on a rare occasion via social media days after the match, often with much fanfare paid to the transparency.
When a system does not achieve its intended purpose, it is either adapted or discarded in our everyday lives. Should the VAR not be adapted to improve the experience for stakeholders, it must be shelved until it can become more functional.
Referees are highly trained and should be backed until a system exists to make their jobs easier, not more complicated. At the very least, fans will accept that when something goes wrong, it was a single person who made an error. Football's governing bodies can take steps towards rectifying it with guidelines, transparency, and training.
Apotsis can understand the frustration fans feel, but he believes that the VAR can play a positive role in football.
"I think VAR has a place in the game, this recent A-League Men’s round aside. There have been instances where VAR has picked up on incidents that all four field officials would not have otherwise been aware of," he said.
"It would be nice to see Football Australia experimenting with different ways of implementing and utilising VAR. I do understand why most fans are only in support of goal-line technology, though."
The VAR system has had some positive effects on the game, but we must ask ourselves at what cost. Recent weeks have seen the VAR discussion reach a boiling point. It is essential to reflect on the big picture of how the technology, as currently applied, is affecting the game.
Last week, the Socceroos made a statement of global magnitude by collectively speaking out about the terrible conditions workers in Qatar have been subjected to while preparing the country for the World Cup. This action will hopefully be the catalyst for encouraging other nations to speak out while putting pressure on Qatar and FIFA to be more socially responsible.
Australian football can once again be a pioneer of change by shelving the system it initially trialled half a decade ago until it is functional for all stakeholders. Such a change may only start at an A-Leagues level. But it will initiate much-needed discussions about necessary change at a higher level for the sport's greater good.
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