Merely two months before its usage at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, the Premier League clubs have voted to not implement the use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) to the league in 2018/19. News of the decision was greeted positively on social media, as you will see in the above word cloud which we created from recent #VAR tweets. However, is the criticism justified, or should we be disappointed to not see the Premier League follow FIFA and the Bundesliga in giving the technology its full backing?
As with any new tech, trust and reliability is King. Any error, and conservative fans will jump on it as justification of their mistrust. There are few harsher and more vocal critics than sports fans, so any perceived failures of VAR were never going to be received by a considerate audience.
In 2017, the Australian A League became the first domestic league to try out the VAR system, but fans were left frustrated at times, primarily due to human errors. Those occurred both when the referee interpreted when to use it, and also by the VAR official when reviewing the tape. Human error is a theme which has continued to the European leagues, although the technology itself or rather the view presented to the public has also let it down.
In this season’s FA Cup the technology was tested on multiple occasions, and in one of the highest profile games, the clash of Manchester United and Huddersfield, journalist Duncan Castles tweeted an image of the on-screen VAR lines… which did not correlate to the pitch markings on the field. That kind of error adds to the generally negative online conversation about VAR. On each occasion it was used, #VAR or other less savoury versions of it were among the top trending hashtags on Twitter.
Hawkeye did make clear in their public apology that they did have access to straight lines for their decision, but perception is everything in tech. Even if it functions perfectly behind the scenes, users or in this case viewers need to have trust in it. It is for this reason that it is essential for fans in the stadium to be able to view what the VAR official is looking at, so they can understand the resulting decision.
— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) February 17, 2018
This past week in the Bundesliga, a situation unfolded which again drew unwanted attention on the technology. With the referee having blown the whistle for half time in a game between Mainz v Freiburg, the VAR official awarded a penalty kick to Mainz after the Freiburg players had gone into their dressing room. Their goalkeeper had to be summoned out to face a spotkick, leaving fans incredulous.
Mainz v Freiburg
Referee blew for half-time, Freiburg players went into the dressing room, only for the ref to use VAR for a handball which wasn’t appealed for by the players.
Mainz were awarded the penalty and scored.
Reason 546 why VAR won’t work in football. #VAR
— The Football Writer (@ZeFutbolWriter) April 16, 2018
Based on all those situations, there clearly remains question marks about the usage of VAR. It is the nature of such technology that the more vocal publicity tends to be of the negative variety. The hope is that if the system can avoid too many errors, in time pressure will come upon those governing bodies who do not use it. Several Premier League managers this season have lamented the unavailability of VAR in their games, having seen a perceived wrong decision which would have been righted by VAR, having seen its benefit during the FA Cup games.
During this summer’s World Cup, we can prepare ourselves for even more VAR talk in the pubs, clubs and social media. If it is successful, pressure will mount on governing bodies such as the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A to join the Bundesliga in adopting its use. The modern generation of fans are not happy with the vague idea that incorrect decisions are balanced out over the course of a season, they want as much accuracy as is possible. The World Cup will likely prove to be the proving ground for the technology. Any high profile glitches and it could set the technology and system back years, but if it works well in the World Cup it will have proven that it can work in any league with the required television coverage.
In March, when FIFA announced that they would be using VAR at the Russia World Cup this summer, it was undoubtedly a major shot in the arm for the technology. In a polished press release football’s world governing body described the system, its usage and the safeguards it has in place to ensure it makes a great addition to the tournament.
“VARs will make football fairer, and more honest”
— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) March 18, 2018
On paper, the specifications and plans look terrific. FIFA have improved the communication structure, with commentary teams being real-time notified of the conversations and images used during a VAR review.
“FIFA has developed a VAR information system for broadcasters, commentators and infotainment. For each match, a FIFA staff member informs the broadcasters, commentators and infotainment about the different steps of the review process, including information about the reason for the review and the outcome of the review, via a networked touch tablet.
The person operating the tablet is located in the video operation room and has access to the audio from the referee communication system as well as the camera angles the VAR is looking at. The VAR information system will also be used to automatically create VAR-specific graphic templates for TV and the giant screen in the stadium.”
In addition, fans in the stadium will be able to view images showing what the VAR official is looking at. This is a key improvement as it makes the process more transparent for fans attending the match.
There will be additional cameras in every venue, allowing the VAR to have every possible view of any incident. However, the key obstacle that needs to be overcome is, as always, human error. It is the implementation of the technology and human mistakes which have been found to be the major issues so far in the Bundesliga and Serie A.
Experience will also be a hurdle to overcome. There will be referees using VAR at the World Cup who have no experience working with a VAR team at a live event. A training camp to be held in Italy this June hopes to overcome that inexperience, but on the biggest sporting stage in the world, that is asking a lot. Teething problems will be hard to avoid.
At Sportego, we are strong believers in how data and technology can really enhance the fan experience and so may biased towards the implementation of VAR into the football fan experience. For many governing bodies the decision whether or not to accept VAR will likely be based on its performance and implementation in Russia. However, make no mistake. Technology is only going to become more prevalent in football and all sports, just as it is in our everyday lives. After all, we are a reflection of the games we play, and they are a reflection of us.
At Sportego we work with sporting organisations to deliver digital, analytic and engagement solutions for clubs, sponsors and supporters. Our work with Derbyshire County Cricket Club has seen us nominated for the BT Sport Industry Awards 2018. If you would like to speak with us about how we could work with your organisation, get in touch via the contact form to the left of this screen, or alternatively reach out to us @WeAreSportego on Twitter or email Trev@Sportego.ie