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  • Writer's pictureHarry Bailey

VAR live mic: The next step forward in A-Leagues refereeing?

Since its introduction in 2017, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has become a prominent topic in the A-League and across global football. While it has had moments of success, the VAR has faced notable waves of criticism and controversy, such as failing to correctly disallow Melbourne Victory's winner in the 2018 Grand Final. Despite its imperfections, the VAR remains an integral part of modern football, despite ongoing debates about its efficacy and impact on the game.

An inside look into the A-League Men VAR centre. (Image: Football Australia)


Football fans, for the most part, understand that referees can make mistakes. But the lack of clarity and inconsistency caused by the VAR tends to cause frustration. Weekly decisions are sparking confusion, leaving fans questioning the VAR's reasoning time after time. Each round, fans are demanding consistency, questioning why one incident may be called a penalty, and the following week not, particularly with handball decisions in the box. Are A-Leagues referees being consistent with their decisions? Or, do fans need to be further enlightened about each call?


Well, the league themselves have asked these question in the past. In 2019, rumours swirled about the A-League considering a live mic for VAR communication in the 2020/21 season. Despite discussions with the International Football Association Board (IFAB), reported by the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, the idea never came to fruition.


As we fast forward to the present, would a VAR live mic prove to be successful? Should the A-Leagues reconsider implementing the idea? Front Page Football examines the pros and cons for fans in considering a VAR live mic for the game's future.


Benefits for fans


The clear advantage of implementing a live mic for VAR operations would be the improved clarity of communication between both fans and referees. Positively, it would allow fans to understand the VAR's process and the rationale behind certain decisions. This transparency could help bridge the gap between the A-Leagues and its fans.


While it may not mend past issues, a VAR live mic would signify progress in the public's perception of the league. This improvement in two-way communication, whilst not going to drastically improve the A-Leagues' general relationship with its fans, is a step forward for looking past previous mistakes and moving forward as a league.

A live mic in the VAR system could also greatly benefit fans viewing from the stand, providing clarity on the referee's decisions. While most stadiums have ample screens, those with just scoreboards would particularly appreciate this feature, enhancing their understanding of a referee's judgements.


The live feed could also add towards the increased entertainment value of VAR decisions, as fans eagerly await the referee's speech instead of watching them consult a mini-screen on the sideline without clarity or insight. This improvement would aid the fan experience and contribute to a more informed and engaged audience, potentially enhancing the atmosphere in stadiums during VAR decisions.


While some fans may argue that biased decisions exist against their club, the league has never faced blatant bias or corruption allegations. However, implementing a VAR live mic could address such concerns by increasing this transparency. While corruption has existed before in football, although it is rare, exposing referee communications would bring accountability and transparency to the forefront of their decisions.

By publicising referee communications, fans can monitor their decisions, potentially reducing accusations of cheating. This system would hold referees accountable for explicit biases or errors, fostering improved officiating standards across the league. While this approach may further stress referees and place them further in the firing line for criticism, it may also subsequently help humanise them for their mistakes and strengthen the overall fan-referee relationship across the country. Recognising referees as individuals with emotions could lead to a more supportive environment that recognises their efforts.


Taking this idea a step further, a live mic could highlight excellent referee performances, showcasing a public portfolio that could lead to potential overseas opportunities. A scenario we have seen before...


Previous success


Before departing to England, referee Jarred Gillett's final A-League match in 2019 featured a microphone, offering fans a unique insight into the referee's perspective during a professional game.


The footage, released to the public after the match (between Melbourne Victory and Brisbane Roar), garnered worldwide attention and sparked discussions about the potential for live mic use in football. Footage that further highlighted Gillett's professional performance as the referee and footage that would have helped provide evidence that he can referee at the highest level - seen now with him refereeing in the English Premier League.

This live mic development gained further traction during the recent FIFA Club World Cup, where a live VAR mic was utilised in a match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahly. Referee Jesús Valenzuela's VAR penalty decision during the match was communicated to the crowd via a public microphone and received positive feedback for enhancing clarity and the fan experience.

Given these developments, should the A-Leagues consider implementing this technology? The usual response from football fans towards this idea suggests potential receptiveness to the change, especially considering Australia's sporting landscape. Many other Australian sporting codes, such as the NRL, already employ live microphones for referees and umpires. While there are drawbacks to doing so, the introduction of a live mic in the A-Leagues would be aided by this familiarity among Australian sports fans.


If implemented, the A-Leagues' adoption of this technology could also serve as a testing ground for its effectiveness. With football's growing popularity in Australia and the need for greater transparency in officiating, the A-Leagues have an opportunity to lead in this regard. However, careful consideration is necessary to address potential challenges or unintended consequences.


Negatives


Introducing a VAR live mic in the A-Leagues brings both benefits and, of course, its challenges. The first obvious disadvantage is that the league must invest time and money to ensure effective technology implementation, catering to stadium fans and live TV audiences. Paramount+ coverage and streaming issues already highlight existing technical and financial burdens currently in the league, with a live mic further adding another layer of complexity.

In addition to technical concerns, implementing a live mic for VAR operations in the A-Leagues would necessitate further training and adjustment for current referees. Presently, communicating with crowds and communicating complex decisions is not outlined in a referee's contract. Developing this skillset may prove challenging for some referees and could require increased financial investment in training and potentially higher pay to compensate for the added responsibilities.


On the football side, a live mic could further complicate the treatment of fans and referees. While we have addressed the positives of this increased communication, the decision could backfire. Natural bias for the home side has always been a concern, and a live mic could exacerbate this issue. Referees may feel pressure to appease home crowds, potentially impacting their impartiality. Additionally, the potential for increased scrutiny and fan backlash could affect the referee's decision-making, leading to further discontent among supporters.

For example, would a referee naturally gravitate towards speaking and acting in a harsher manner to the away team if thousands of active home supporters were constantly in their ear? Would the referee and VAR be influenced to make decisions that avoid live scrutiny, protecting them from harm? While one would hope to assume that would not happen, as we know all too well after the Melbourne Derby last season, the relationship between referees and supporters in the A-Leagues does not have the greatest of reputations.


Consider the potential fallout from a referee addressing the crowd after a contentious penalty decision. While intended to clarify, such interaction might stoke further fan unrest, leading to further tensions between officials and supporters.


What happens when the inevitable also occurs, and the VAR makes an incorrect call? How will fans react to a decision that cannot be justified, perhaps due to a technological glitch or error? The prospect of vocal discontent from the stands looms large, raising concerns about the safety and integrity of match officials.

While it may improve communication between fans and referees, do we want football to turn even more robotic and static? With these arguments already existing for the VAR, would a live mic further interrupt operations and further complex the game? If implemented poorly, we may keep moving away from football being a free-flowing game, a situation no fan wants to see.

Looking abroad, the experience in England with the television program 'Match Officials Mic'd Up' offers an insight into these potential pitfalls. While initially supported, the show faced backlash from fans who felt it failed to justify controversial decisions, which referees and their decisions unfairly favour. If the A-Leagues was to release similar footage in a live or post-match setting, it could face similar criticism unless presented effectively.


About these complexities, it becomes clear that introducing a live VAR mic is not without its challenges. While aiming to enhance transparency and fan engagement, its implementation must be carefully navigated to safeguard the integrity of officiating and maintain the spirit of fair play in the leagues.


Is it likely to ever happen?


The prospect of implementing a live mic for VAR in the A-Leagues undoubtedly appeals to many Australian football fans. While rumours of such a development surfaced in 2019, the league may have missed the opportunity to pioneer this advancement in football. Yet, considering the A-Leagues' history as a testing ground for VAR, there remains the potential for it to lead the way once again.


However, amidst the current challenges facing the league, including financial woes and competing priorities, the introduction of a live VAR mic may not be imminent. While discussing the benefits and mechanics of the technology is relevant, it may not be of the highest priorities for the league at this moment.

 

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On a global scale, FIFA's ongoing trials of this concept, as evidenced by its use in the recent Club World Cup, indicate that logistical and strategic considerations are still being addressed. Yet, given the A-Leagues' track record with VAR, it is worth considering whether including a live mic could be a step forward for refereeing decisions in the future.


Whether you like the VAR or not, the current modern landscape of football suggests it is likely to stay. If so, would improving the communication between players, staff, referees, and fans pave the way for a more cohesive and enjoyable footballing environment? Ultimately, while not an immediate priority, the persistence of VAR in football suggests that enhancing communication and clarity around decisions may prove beneficial for the future of the A-Leagues for years to come.


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