The Great VAR Debate

by Terry Fogarty
21st Jun 2018

So the World Cup has now entered phase two, every team having played at least one game.

I think we can agree that it has generally been an exciting World Cup with some fantastic goals. 

One of the big points of discussion before a ball was even kicked was: ‘How is VAR going to affect the games’ flow?’ After a pretty inconclusive season in the Premier League, we were right to be concerned.

The games haven’t been as stop-start as some feared, so that’s one success already. And, it’s true, the way they’ve implemented the review system (i.e. the game continues whilst it is being looked at by the panel of referees) is a good idea; however, the system didn’t get off to the greatest start. The first two major VAR decisions were, in my opinion, wrong. 

Firstly, Spain’s Diego Costa clearly jumped into Pepe with a leading arm, fouling the Portugese defender. Costa went on to score as a review took place in the background; with the review deeming no foul had taken place. I’m not even sure how the referee missed it in real time so for a review to miss it baffled me. 

Australian defender Josh Risden was also harshly penalised. The referee deemed that the defender touched the ball onto French forward Antoine Griezmann in the box, making a well-timed tackle. VAR was needed, bringing the first stoppage whilst the referee reviewed it. Somehow, a penalty was given.

FIFA ruling states that play should be reviewed if ‘a clear and obvious mistake’ is made, but this wasn’t one. Former England international Jermaine Jenas picked it up, stating ‘That’s one that shouldn’t even be sent for review. The referee made his decision by not giving the penalty. It was not a clear and obvious mistake. That’s where VAR can come off on the wrong side of things.’

However, it’s not all bad. The Sweden v South Korea game showcased the benefits of the system. South Korea’s Lee Jae-Sung clearly brought down Sweden’s Viktor Claesson. The referee waved play on and South Korea counter attacked; however the move was halted as the referee was invited to review his decision not to award the penalty. Almost immediately, the penalty was given - a fair decision, and Sweden were quite rightly awarded the penalty.

I have two concerns though. Firstly, how did the officials on the pitch miss such a clear foul? The referee and assistant referee both had an excellent view and neither gave it. Secondly, the referee stopped a South Korea attack to review the decision. If he reviewed and deemed that he had made the correct call (the referee still has the final say, remember), surely that would have robbed South Korea of a promising attack? What would happen then? Surely it must be reviewed the next time the ball is out of play. 

In contrast, Egypt benefitted from a great use of the technology when Mo Salah was fouled right on the edge of the box but fell inside the area against inform hosts Russia. The referee gave a free kick on the edge of the box. A review was called for and, quite rightly, a penalty was given. 

The laws of the game clearly state that if holding starts outside the penalty area and continues into the penalty area it is a penalty kick.’ David Elleray, former referee

But, shortly after, the England v Tunisia game saw the system questioned once again. Harry Kane was very clearly held at a corner in what can be described as a rugby tackle. I understand the referee missing it as there is a lot going on, but this was one of the main reasons why VAR was brought in. Having seen replays - the same replays the panel sees - how they deemed that a legal challenge not warranting review was amazing. If ever there was a ‘clear and obvious error’, that was it. Fair enough, it was used well at the other end - Kyle Walker with a silly stray elbow, cleverly used by the Tunisian player, for which he was lucky not to be shown a red card - but is that good enough? 

‘Cricket has it down, now we have to. And the players need to use it responsibly too, not calling VAR for every little thing. Not only will it destroy the game but certain referees clearly have their ‘favourites’, which for the smaller (yet equally as vibrant and hungry) teams like Iran, can change everything.’

Overall there is still a long way to go before this system is perfect. Officials will say the system has been successful, but I disagree. In my opinion, ‘successful’ for this system is getting EVERY decision right. There should be no ‘interpretation.’ When an incident is reviewed it is black and white. Either a law of the game was broken, or it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that every decision needs to be 100% spot on every time - referees are human - but the ‘clear and obvious mistake’ line is the important one. If there are ANY doubts during the panel review, then the referee’s decision should stand. 

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