The fight to make VAR work properly for football

‘Scandalous’, ’embarrassing’, ‘absolutely rotten’ – the list of adjectives used to describe West Ham’s stoppage-time equalizer against Chelsea on Saturday being overturned varied, but the verdict was unanimous. Disallowing a perfectly good goal by Maxwell Cornet due to an alleged foul on Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy in the build-up stole a point from the Hammers and went against VAR’s “minimum interference, maximum benefit” mantra. Declan Rice was so outraged that he led to twitter to vent his frustrations, writing “That’s up there with one of the worst VAR decisions made since he entered the game.”

That was not the only surprise from VAR this weekend. Alexander Isak’s winning goal for Newcastle against Crystal Palace was snatched away by video assistant referee Lee Mason for an equally suspicious collision. In this case, Mason’s experience compared to rookie field umpire Michael Salisbury was influential; Arguably, this power dynamic means that VAR officials intervene too quickly, putting referees on the pitch in positions where they feel pressured to change their decision. This was not inevitable, so how did we end up here?

Video assistant refereeing was first made available for use in the Premier League in a clash between Liverpool and newly promoted Norwich City on 9 August 2019. In the three years since, its implementation has been a source of constant controversy. Intended to give officials the opportunity to override their initial decisions in the event of “clear and obvious errors”, VAR was brought in after a unanimous vote by Premier League clubs, making the division the last of the “Big Five” of Europe to adopt it.

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Now the biggest calls in the world’s most popular league are outsourced to a commercial property in Hayes. During every Premier League match, officials monitor proceedings from a small room in Stockley Park, the west London business park that doubles as the EPL’s VAR hub and has therefore become synonymous with the tension, fear and anguish that unites all football fans. In arguably the most controversial office block in the world, run by IMG Studios, a video assistant referee, VAR assistant and replay operator have the power to step in and instruct the referee on the pitch about red card related incidents, goals, penalties and cases of mistaken identity. According to the Premier League website, the introduction of VAR in 2019/20 increased the percentage of correct decisions in key matches from 82% in the previous season to 94%. On its maiden voyage, VAR reviewed 2,400 incidents and overturned 109 decisions, with an average of one overturned decision every 3.5 games. It seems that a higher degree of accuracy has been achieved, but with the delays, interruptions and inconsistencies, at what expense? You’d be hard-pressed to find a football fan, pundit or pundit who’s convinced it’s been a complete success.

For The Athletic’s Dan Bardell, VAR is far more frustrating for fans attending matches than it is for television audiences. “If you’re watching a game on TV, you know what’s going on because you can see it all unfold on the screen,” he says. “If you’re on the ground, you have no idea. I think the fans inside the ground should have priority, they should be able to see these things on the big screen. You’re taking it away from people who would have paid to be there.

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