Why Wolves’ VAR proposal puts football at a crossroads

Daily News
12 Min Read
Why Wolves’ VAR proposal puts football at a crossroads

There is a fundamental issue within football that we need to address. Wolves’ proposal to scrap VAR has opened up a very pertinent debate, and slammed it front and centre in the minds of everyone in football.

As supporters, pundits, clubs, players and managers, what do we want from football, and the way it is refereed?

As I see it, we have reached a crossroads, where we have two distinct choices: push on with VAR and further technology in the game, in order to get more refereeing decisions right; or scrap VAR in the top division, and prioritise the live spectacle for in-stadium and at-home spectators.

That’s it. We have to choose, one or the other. We can’t have both. Even though that is what the football authorities are desperately seeking.

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Our current Sky Sports News poll is unequivocal – there is a clear majority of football fans who want to see the end of VAR. But we should remember that a similar poll pre-VAR had the majority of supporters in favour of its introduction.

That change of feeling, I believe, points at least in part to a failure of marketing. The messaging around VAR, before it was introduced, talked about a footballing future where every single refereeing decision would be correct.

That wasn’t a message that the Premier League or PGMOL sent out, to be clear. But it was the general narrative in the sporting media, and with football pundits. VAR was the holy grail, something to override human fallibility, something to end football fans endlessly arguing about the rights and wrongs of penalty decisions and offsides.

After all, we’d had a taste of how technology could help football with the painless introduction of goal-line decision-making. It was simple. Just an instant buzz on the referee’s watch. Unarguable. Brilliant.

But the reality is that – aside from goal-line decisions and (arguably) offsides – the vast majority of refereeing decisions are subjective. They are a matter of opinion. Was there sufficient contact for a penalty to be awarded? Was a player’s challenge reckless enough to warrant a red card? Whether those decisions are made by the on-field officials or by a VAR watching countless replays on a monitor, it is still a human giving their opinion. And so it is fundamentally fallible.

When VAR was introduced to the Premier League five years ago, we should have realised that refereeing decisions could never be 100 per cent.

What do other PL clubs think?

Liverpool are among the clubs that would not support scrapping VAR, Sky Sports News understands.

While a leading Premier League executive from a separate club has told Sky Sports News “VAR is here to stay”.

There is a feeling among several top clubs that VAR is a help more than a hindrance, and that the focus should be on improving its application and communication with supporters, rather than scrapping it altogether.

In February, the Premier League announced that 96 per cent of refereeing decisions had been correct at that stage of this season. Compare that, they said, to just 82 per cent of correct refereeing decisions pre-VAR. Ninety-six per cent is great. But it’s not 100 per cent.

The Premier League does not take this issue lightly. In fact, it is one of its biggest priorities in its custodianship of the game.

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What should be the future of VAR heading in to next season? Premier League managers such as Erik ten Hag, Thomas Frank and Oliver Glasner have their say.

It said several months ago (long before Wolves tabled their proposal) that it is striving for more accuracy in decision-making, shorter delays for those decisions to be delivered, and more transparency to improve the supporter experience. The last of those aims is beyond its control.

IFAB needs to change the rules to allow referees to talk directly to a crowd about their decisions. The Premier League is lobbying the lawmakers hard for that to be allowed. But it has introduced the retrospective ‘Match Officials Mic’d Up’ to try to improve transparency, admit mistakes, and highlight when VAR works.

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Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane and Andy Cole react to the possibility of a VAR-free Premier League

So, we return to our original, fundamental question: what do we want from football and referees?

It has been made clear to me that the Premier League and most top clubs want VAR to stay. But they want it to improve and evolve, too.

They want more technology, better trained specialists, faster decisions, decisions better communicated to the fans in the stadium, more consistent and accurate use of the technology, more technology, to help get more decisions right. And that’s the clear motivation from within the game: get more decisions right.

But, if that is the road that we choose, we have to accept there will be frequent and often disruptive interruptions to the game itself, which may damage it as a live spectacle.

For the striker who has just hit the back of the net, for the thousands of fans inside the stadium, and for the millions watching at home, many goal celebrations will remain rather muted, until it has been checked by VAR.

Yes, we can press for officials to make decisions more quickly to limit the disruption. But when that happened earlier this season in September, and pressure was put on the PGMOL to return quicker verdicts, we saw Luis Diaz’s goal for Liverpool against Tottenham incorrectly ruled out because the VAR had mis-communicated the situation to the referee, in his rush to get the game back on.

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Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon was left fuming after VAR failed to award him a penalty in the first half of their defeat to Man Utd on Wednesday

Prolonged VAR decisions can quickly quell an atmosphere inside a stadium. Of that there is no doubt. It can halt the momentum of a team who is on top in a match. It can – as is Wolves’ fundamental argument – damage football as a spectacle for the paying punter, and make the Premier League less attractive as a commercial entity, worldwide.

After all, when we talk about the English elite game as the “best league in the world” it is largely because of the quality of the football and players, how competitive almost all of the matches are, and the speed and excitement of the games. It is rarely hailed as the best because of the accuracy of the refereeing decisions.

It is inescapable that some of that excitement and spectacle is lost, when everything stops for a person in Stockley Park to carefully watch a few video replays.

So, the other option is to scrap technology and VAR when it comes to refereeing decisions. Put aside plans to introduce semi-automated offsides next season, and other innovations that will help accuracy. The result of that will be many fewer interruptions to the passionate, fast-flowing game that we all love. Fans and players will look at the on-field referee, and their decision will be final. A goal would be a goal. Instantly, and joyously. We could all celebrate or despair, spontaneously.

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Wolves’ Jose Sa says he doesn’t understand why so many VAR decisions are going against his club and claims it has cost them 10 points

But if we choose that option, we also have to accept that there will be far more refereeing mistakes. Far more incorrect decisions. Certainly ones that would influence the outcome of individual matches. Maybe some that would influence the outcome of league titles, or promotion and relegation. As used to happen in “the good old days”, justice and fair play would come second to excitement and emotion.

And the Premier League would be at odds with other major European leagues and, crucially, at odds with UEFA. You would have a pretty ludicrous situation where teams would play without VAR at weekends in the Premier League, but with VAR in the Champions League midweek. Is that sustainable?

So, it is time to choose. What do we really want from football?

Wolves’ proposal will almost certainly fail. VAR looks set to stay, however it may change in the future.

But the debate about technology in football, and its impact on the fundamental fluidity and enjoyability of the game, will rage on.

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