By Bilal Ali
Since time immemorial, football fans have been debating the ability, competency and reliability of referees.
But the issues now lay deeper than ever before, and the discussion has shifted to how poorly referees are refereeing other referees who are refereeing the matches we are watching. Get your head around that one.
The Video Assistant Referee, or VAR, has divided opinions amongst football fans, players, managers and pundits, even leading to some fans to stop attending matches. However, having the system in place isn’t the issue at all, it’s the implementation that’s causing all the fuss.
When introduced to the mainstream football audience in 2018, (it has been in use in the A-League since 2017), we were told it was reserved for redressing clear and obvious errors. The available evidence blatantly suggests otherwise.
The VAR system worked so well at the 2018 FIFA World Cup that even some doubters of the technology began to change their tune.
Referees putting their hand to their ears, drawing an oddly outdated square with their hands and running towards the monitor on the side of the pitch was often met with roars of amusement from the crowds and the entire act became something of a staple of the competition.
Just over a year later, the Premier League have not only managed to drop the ball with their unique interpretation of how the VAR should be used, but they’ve managed to shatter the proverbial ball and with it the hopes of countless supporters. I’m talking to you, Arsenal and Watford fans.
Should be on screen and the conversations between VAR and the referee should be heard both at the ground and on television. It’s presently shambolic and destroying the football experience. Needs a rethink. https://t.co/kwOsSCnfzo
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) October 27, 2019
One aspect of the problem is that the quality of referees in the Premier League has been low for several years now, and the League is now employing even more of these poor referees to officiate over some of the more experienced (if still abject) referees.
No English referees were chosen to officiate at last year’s FIFA World Cup, such is the poor quality of the officiating in England, which is a blow to the argument that the league was better off before the VAR system was introduced.
So, it’s the usage of the system that has left fans frustrated and forlorn, wondering when their beautiful game went astray and was taken over by computers.
The higher-ups at the Premier League instructed referees at the start of the season to refrain from using the monitors at the side of the pitch (as was so effectively done in the World Cup) and instead left the overturning of “clear and obvious” errors to the Video Assistant Referees.
Yes, the assistants were asked to make the final call – not exactly a recipe for success.
This method quite predictably backfired, and in the first nine rounds of the Premier League hardly any penalty or red card decisions were overturned and fans were left flicking through the laws of the game for the definition of “sufficient contact.”
Last weekend, Watford were denied a penalty that would have seen them go 2-0 up against Tottenham when Jan Vertonghen brought down Gerard Deulofeu in the box and the VAR decided against overruling the referee. That was a watershed moment for some fence-sitters on the use of VAR.
The system was criticised all week in the media, with many pundits claiming that the Video Assistant Referees are too afraid to overturn their colleague’s decisions.
Then came arguably this weekend’s most controversial moment, when in the dying moments of the Arsenal vs Crystal Palace match the Gunners scored what appeared to be a legitimate winning goal through Sokratis.
But up stepped former A-League referee Jarred Gillet, who has never refereed a Premier League game, to overturn the decision of Martin Atkinson (who has overseen 385 Premier League matches) and disallow the goal for a seemingly inconspicuous foul in the penalty area by Callum Chambers on Luka Milivojevic.
“It’s almost like he’s [Mike Riley] asking his referee to referee to public opinion rather then what they’re supposed to be doing!”
— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) October 27, 2019
The real issue is that inexperienced and arguably inadequate referees are being used to monitor the game via the VAR system, and while they aren’t in the middle, they’re ultimately making the final decision because referees are refusing to use the monitors.
It’s easy for these officials to make line calls on decisions of offside after 35 replays and the latest version of Microsoft Paint at their disposal, but penalty and red card decisions need to be made by the on-field referee who is most often more experienced and can better relate to the tempo of the game, as cliché and unscientific as that sounds.
In just one week the threshold for overturning errors has gone from far too high to far too low, and if a consistency isn’t struck soon, the uproar from football fans and pundits will not stop any time soon.