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Don’t be afraid of the VAR

It’s coming, and it is a good thing.

The 2017 New Yorker TechFest Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Technology. It’s one of those things that people profess to hate by cranking out a post on their phone (which is technology) on social media (technology). In a soccer context, that hate is expressed by thinking somehow that the game was better when, for example, the ball was made of leather and stitched by hand, and weighed about a pound (significantly more when it was wet). Now, the ball is made of synthetic material (technology) and designed by a computer (technology) with the aid of the best studies of aerodynamics and physics that companies can pay for (technology). And that’s saying nothing of the uniforms. Or the stadiums. Or...well, you get the idea.

Annnnnyhoodle, technology in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, nor is it one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Technology can and has made life immeasurably better for a lot of people. And, superficially to actual life things, technology has made sports a lot better as well - from that line that shows on the TV during NFL games to indicate where first downs are to super slo-mo that shows you the rotation of a pitch or the arc of a jump shot, on down the line, technology has been used to improve both the viewing and the playing experience of sports to a very large degree.

The latest frontier for technology, in soccer, is that of the Video Assistant Referee, or VAR. One of the things about soccer that is unique is that it only has one on-field referee - the two assistants run up and down their respective sidelines, but there’s only one set of eyes actually on the field during a game. For contrast, the NBA, with a court size of 28.7 meters by 15.2 meters (as opposed to the 105x68 size of the Emirates), has three referees on the court in a game.

As the game has gotten quicker and the players have gotten faster and stronger, this creates challenges - there’s no way a single referee can keep up with everything that happens on the field, and his or her assistants can only be of so much help.

There has been much debate over what to do about this - should soccer add a second referee, so each one only patrols a single half? Should there be a chip in the ball so it beeps whenever it crosses the goal/end/touchline? Should instant replay be used to solve disputes, the way it is in other sports?

Whenever this topic is broached, it generates a huge debate, between people that don’t think it’s necessary and people that do. Those that don’t think it’s necessary make the argument that the fallibility of the ref is part of the game, and that it’s part of the fun as a fan to boo the ref on Saturday and debate the ref’s decisions the rest of the week. It’s all a part of the entertainment, as it were, and to remove that aspect of the entertainment is to lessen it.

Another argument against technology is that it will add time to the game - the time it takes to review and adjudicate calls will result in a lot of standing around waiting while things get decided.

On the pro-do something side, the argument is basically that if we can sit at home and have the benefit of 10 angles of high definition slow motion video, why doesn’t the league let its referees have the same technology? Why not use replay? Why not use a chip in the ball? We don’t accept anything short of an all out fantastic performance from the athletes, why not demand the same from the referees, and why not give them the tools to get there?

The FA and the Premier League have both been edging towards at least trying to push technological solutions forward into the game, and today we found out that the next step there is that Video Assistant Refereeing will be used in the Carabao Cup from here on in - both semifinals and the final will be using it.

If you’re on the “no tech” side, this is where you will no doubt express your displeasure. But, while you do, it’s important to remember a few things about VAR, primarily that its use is limited to the following situations:

- Goal/no goal
- Straight red cards anywhere on the pitch
- Penalty calls
- Mistaken identity

It’s also important to remember that a coach cannot call for or demand VAR; the way it works is that if an off-pitch video official sees something in one of those four situations that in their opinion the on-pitch referee misses, he signals the referee, play stops, and the ref goes to a pitch-side video monitor to review the various feeds made available by the league.

VAR started being used in MLS in August of this year, and while I haven’t done a rigorous amount of research on its use (I’m planning on doing that sometime this winter), I can speak to it anecdotally. In games I was at in person, I saw it used three times, and in each of those three instances, the call on the pitch was overturned, and in each of those instances, the entire process, from original call to VAR alerting the center ref to review to overturn, took approximately two minutes.

“Two minutes is a lot!” you’re probably saying right now. And, while in absolute terms you’re not wrong, think of this scenario: Player with ball bears down at speed on the penalty area, weaves through a few bodies, looks to make contact with at least one, then goes to ground. The referee points immediately to the spot.

Now, the players on the team who just conceded the red proceed to surround the ref angrily and each start yelling at him, and before you know it the coach is yelling at the sideline ref as well. This goes on for a bit, until the ref manages to pull away from 10 overamped athletes, sets up the ball, and starts forming players for the penalty.

Meanwhile, at home, you see another angle that shows the player with the ball just sort of slipped and fell - but did so in a crowded area, from which it could be easily interpreted if you only had one angle that he was tripped. But that’s not the case. Dude was just clumsy.

The penalty gets taken, celebrate celebrate celebrate, the fouling team again starts yapping at the ref, and slowly, everyone wanders back to center to re-start play. How long did that take? Considerably more than two minutes, in most cases, and in support of something that, with benefit of second sight, was clearly incorrect.

I guess all I’m asking is that you give VAR an honest evaluation and approach it with an open mind when the Cup semi-final is going on, because on balance, it’s a good thing. It bucks tradition, but then again, tradition sometimes needs to be bucked - especially if it helps improve the accuracy of the people adjudicating the game.