Technology Use In Football Must Be VAR More Transparent

Technology in football is a polarising topic for many, something which seems to garner attention and rile people in a way little else can. Despite technology being used to aid refereeing decision making for a long period of time, errors are still taking place, a cause for concern and great frustration for many in the game.

The first instance of technology aiding refereeing decisions in football was the introduction of goal-line technology by FIFA in 2012. In theory, goal-line technology is a win-win for the game. Whether a ball has crossed the line is not subjective, and the technology should operate by alerting the referee as to whether a goal has been scored or not, so does not interfere with play or cause a delay to proceedings.

This has largely been successful, although ironically one of the most recent instances of controversy at Villa Park denied Sheffield United a goal through the failings of goal-line technology. I think this incident must be judged as an anomaly, however.

The failings were not a result of the process rather the technology itself giving an incorrect result. Whilst this is not much comfort for Sheffield United who were denied a goal, given the circumstances of the match being the first back from an extended break in an empty stadium you would like to think this is a one-off incident, and lessons have been learnt to ensure this does not happen again.

The concern, in this case, is that it did seem such a blatant error that the linesman and referee were not able to overturn the decision or did not feel confident enough to do so. Who is to say what the decision would have been without technology, but if there is any sort of a pattern of decisions being actively wrong as a result of using technology, then clearly it is not up to the standard required.

So, we move on to the more recent introduction of the Video assistant referee (VAR) system. VAR is used to “support the decision-making process of referees” according to FIFA, used specifically in instances of goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity.

All being well either a clear error has been found or the decision is clearly correct and can remain, but how many decisions in football are this clear cut? Even the seemingly clear-cut rule of offside has become a minefield as a result of VAR exposing the smallest margins. This had led to much debate over both the rule and how to enforce it with VAR.

In addition to this, determining a player’s involvement in a passage of play is also subject to interpretation, something which was demonstrated as recently as Wednesday night between West Ham and Chelsea, resulting in David Moyes admitting he was losing faith in VAR. I feel for the good of the game in this instance the benefit of the doubt should be given to the attacking side.

The handball rule has also been under scrutiny. Changed at the start of the 2019-20 season any goal scored following contact of the ball with the hand of the attacking team is disallowed, even if accidental. This removes the subjective element of determining whether handball is deliberate or not but does mean players can be punished for handball through no fault of their own, something which many feel is unfair.

Awarding penalties is yet another controversial area of the process. Determining the degree of contact between players can be difficult at the best of times. How many times have we seen on Match of the Day two pundits debating whether a player should have gone down in the area having watched replay after replay throughout the afternoon? Where these decisions are at play, I believe the referee should stick with their original decision. In cricket for some decisions, following use of ball-tracking technology a decision of umpire’s call can be obtained to mitigate potential error in technology. This could be employed in the football setting with decisions such as penalties due to contact between a defender and attacker in the penalty error if there is no clear error from the referee the original decision should remain. This also has the advantage of ensuring the referee maintains responsibility for decisions, so does not feel threatened using technology.

A recent YouGov survey obtained interesting results from consultations with fans. 74% of fans wanted VAR to remain, but with changes, a surprisingly high figure for some. 81% of fans support being shown the same footage as referees on the big screen in the ground, 73% support being able to hear the conversation between the on-pitch referee and VAR, and 80% support the use of pitchside monitors by referees.

Personally, I feel the biggest improvement would be to see the same footage and hear the conversation taking place to follow the decision-making process. Most fans understand the job of a referee is very difficult but being transparent with the process taking place would gain some empathy and be more engaging for the fans.

As seen in other sports, notably rugby union and cricket, showing footage inside the stadium allows spectators to understand the process taking place far better. At times with VAR fans have been left completely in the dark and would have far better knowledge of what is happening by being at home, which is a wholly undesirable outcome for everyone.

Whilst the television experience undoubtedly has its advantages over going to the game, such as the analysis and insight on offer, having fans at the game unable to understand whether a goal has been awarded or not is bordering on farcical. As we are currently seeing, football without the fans is a much poorer sport, so ensuring fan engagement must be the number one priority.

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