All football fans want for Christmas is a right decision. 2018 could be considered the start of an English refolution. The Football Association is trialing the use of a video assistant referees (VARs), an advancement that has long been part of almost all other professional sports. Considering the importance of just a few premier league points to Champions league qualification or relegation it seems surprising that the lack of technological help has been accepted so long. Passivity and conservatism in critical places may be to blame, but there are other factors to consider; Why have correct decisions become more critical? Why is it not possible for correct decisions to be made consistently? Will technology improve the consistency or accuracy of decisions? What are the arguments against its use?
Why have correct decisions become more critical?
Football began as an amateur sport when the focus was pursuit of sport for its own sake, but gradually the evolution to business has occurred. The growth of football, in particular the premier league, as a business entity has been marked over the last 25 years. The incomes and costs associated have risen dramatically. Promotion and therefore relegation from the league is often stated to be worth in the region of £100 million. Relegation has great ramifications and is often decided by very few points making one games result influential. For example the current gap between 10th place and 18th place in the Premier League is just 5 points. If a refereeing decision made in one game, for example a late penalty or early red card, makes a clear 2-3 point swing in the result it is arguable that one decision could now be worth £100 million. The same decision 100 or so years ago could have led to one team losing some pride or glory. Whilst it is appreciated that football players and managers are highly paid, performance over a season, or even much less in the modern era, can lead to the loss of jobs and the upheaval of families. Many contracts are signed depending on relegation or the avoidance of it. The kind of manager instability seen today was not a factor 30-40 years ago. All this makes decision making critical. Statistics on the correctness of decisions from referees are a new phenomenon, so it is hard to say if the quality is better now. But naturally questionable decisions are made.
Why can’t the right decisions be made?
This is clearly a complicated question, with many contributing factors. A critical factor may be it is impossible for the old refereeing structure to make effective decisions in today’s games- can one referee and two assistants cover the pitch with a game played at increasingly high pace? Naturally experience is important to referees, but increasing age may mean physiological ability lags considerably behind the players. Referees’ speed and agility inhibit them from keeping up with the game. The modern day light weight balls and high player conditioning make passes of more than 40m the norm, a quick change of possession and a long pass inevitably leaves the officiating team out of position. Naturally VAR could aid decisions here. Another factor which may well influence officials is external pressure. Despite referees’ assurance of neutrality they are humans capable of unknown cognitive biases. The intensity of decision making “in the heat of the moment” is surely compounded by 40-70,000 people’s eyes and reactions. Currently managers, players and fans have the luxury of reviewing crucial decisions and questioning/berating the referee after the game. Whether these factors will be reduced for a video referee is debatable, but they will at least have the luxury of a little more thinking time. All involved would have reduced ground to question the decision making if it has already been subject to extra scrutiny. These factors point to a likely improved decision making environment- but will more correct decisions be made?
Will VARs improve decision making?
This point is hard to argue against, decisions in football are often impeded by speed, angle of view from the referee, competing players body parts, of the ball incidents and uncertainty around participants. Intent of a hand ball may still be questionable but questions such as did the player touch the ball during the foul? Which players were involved? Was any body part offside? and did something happen behind the referees back? Will be much easier to consider at slower speed and on review. One of few counterarguments is the consistency of when the referee choses to review a decision. Take the example of wrestling and shirt pulling at every corner and free kick around the penalty area. Which circumstances will the referee decide is appropriate to review? In every case of a possible penalty to the attacking side or only to overturn a goal in favour of the defensive side? This aspect has potential to yield great inconsistency- guidance and clarity will be required from inception of VARs. Overall the weight of argument seems to be supporting the VAR, but what are the some of the more general counterpoints?
What are the arguments against VARs use?
Critics of VARs in football cite the added pauses that may be introduced, the feasibility of wide spread use and reduction of controversies that contribute to the intriguing balance of luck and performance. Taken in turn, the time component is valid but can be managed. An incorrect decision often leads to significant opposition team protest, delaying the game in a similar manner to a review. Through limiting reviews to goals, penalties and red card decisions the significance of delays can be reduced. Feasibility is a non-argument, every high level game is recorded, extensively covered for highlights, scouts and of course live broadcasting. The number and quality of cameras available makes VARs very feasible with only, perhaps, the cost of one extra official. Whilst VARs will be less feasible for lower level competition the consequences of decision making are vastly reduced. With regards controversy, marginal decisions will remain debatable. It is merely clearly wrong decisions that will be overturned, improving the fairness of the result. But, even these may be interpreted differently by various groups- intrigue and the number of news column inches is therefore unlikely to be reduced.
In conclusion it seems strange that the New Year’s Refolution has taken so long. Conservatism at the top of football must be partially to blame, fear of changing a phenomenally successful product another factor. But for those who desire quality along with fairness the hope is VARs will improve the integrity of decision making in football.