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Football managers and clubs argue over VAR

The use of the Video Assistant Referee has raised as many questions as answers this season

A VAR review in progress during an FA Cup game. Getty Images
A VAR review in progress during an FA Cup game. Getty Images

The English Premier League became the last of the major European football leagues to adopt the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, with some trepidation. As the season finally winds down, VAR decisions are in the news again.

Just before the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Chelsea on 19 July, the Blues’ manager Frank Lampard voiced concern that VAR had been favouring United. “Some might go against you or not, but we seem to be in a period where, in terms of Manchester United, they have got a few in their favour. It would be nice if VAR worked in our favour in this one," he said. He was referring specifically to United’s previous Premier League game against Crystal Palace, where the Red Devils survived a penalty appeal and Palace had a goal chalked off due to an offside. So far, this season, seven goals scored against United have been overturned by VAR—the joint highest in the league.

His United counterpart, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, dismissed this as a “narrative" and retorted that if anything, United have been the wronged party. But he said he trusts the referees and VAR officials.

Similar squabbles have broken out quite often this season, especially after the games restarted following the covid-19 lockdown. And though clubs across leagues seem resigned to it, there have been some murmurs of discontent. The Australian A-League, for instance, is all set to abandon VAR in the next season. Again, while managers at the wrong end of a VAR decision have always complained of its “unfairness", West Ham manager David Moyes went so far as to say he had lost all faith in VAR because of a goal disallowed for offside in a recent match against Chelsea. This despite the Hammers eventually winning the game 3-2.

The VAR system was designed by The Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) in 2012 to iron out refereeing errors by adding a layer of technology. A group of video officials could review contentious decisions like an offside or a penalty call and help the on-pitch referee come to as correct a decision as possible. “With all the 4G and Wi-Fi in stadia today, the referee is the only person who can’t see exactly what is happening and he’s actually the only one who should," Lukas Brud, secretary of the International Football Association Board (Ifab) had told the magazine Wired. By the time the Fifa World Cup first used VAR in 2018, most of Europe’s top leagues had already adopted it. The Spanish La Liga, among the holdouts, inaugurated it in the 2018-19 season, and the Premier League, this season. However, almost every week, managers, players and clubs have complained about the lack of clarity in rules and inconsistency in VAR decisions.

In La Liga, recently, Barcelona grumbled about VAR when they were being dethroned as league champions by arch rivals Real Madrid. The club’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, alleged, just around the time that Madrid were pulling away from Barcelona on 9 July, that VAR had favoured Madrid since the league restarted. “I feel bad because we have the best league in the world and VAR after coronavirus isn’t fair." People were quick to point out that Barcelona came second because they are an ageing team in decline and because Madrid have won 10 out of their 11 matches since football resumed.

That said, Fifa has indicated that it would like to standardize the rules so that every country can adopt VAR. This would be welcome, as there seem to be far too many differing interpretations of rules like “hand in unnatural position" when it comes to judging a handball. And too many goals have been disallowed on ridiculously fine margins like a player’s armpit or strand of hair was deemed being in an offside position.

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