FC Yahoo Mixer: The great VAR debate

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Henry, you’re wrong.

You haven’t typed anything yet, but you’re wrong, because I know you love VAR. And VAR sucks.

I know it can sound antediluvian to be opposed to instant replay, but I’m not against it on principle. I’m against this particular application of it. Goal-line technology has enriched the sport. And I don’t inherently believe that other forms of replay and verification couldn’t do the same. It’s just that VAR, in its current incarnation, makes soccer worse.

Because soccer is a sport of momentum. Its rhythm and flow and tangle for momentum and territory grows hypnotic in the most pleasing games. But that trance is broken when you consult a replay on a screen that the viewer can’t even see. It shatters the spell. Certainly, referees confer without VAR as well, taking up time as they sort through what happened. But that’s visible, and it’s absorbed by the overarching drama of the game on the field.

Sport, at its essence, is a raw manifestation of humanity. But when we break from the play to refer to some outside source, and just kind of stand around and wait for a few minutes, it chips away at that humanity.

If VAR were quick and conclusive, like goal-line technology, I’d be all for it. The referee would consult his watch, or his earpiece, without interrupting the game, and we’d all carry on. VAR may well get to that point, but it isn’t there yet. And until it is, I want no part of it – particularly not at the World Cup.

Because I believe it’s more important to be entertained than for everything to be perfectly accurate. If we can get the calls right, great. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the tempo of the game. Sport isn’t always fair and it needn’t be. That’s part of the drama. Part of the humanity.

Henry Bushnell: Alright, alright. Enough. My turn.

A lot to digest here, some of which I’ll return to later. Let’s start with the idea of momentum and flow. And with the dirty little secret of soccer: It’s not incessant. It’s not continuously flowing. In the average professional game, the ball is in play for less than 60 of the 90 minutes. Most goal kicks and corners come with 20-30-second stoppages.

I won’t challenge your stance that soccer’s rhythm is an appealing, integral and inherent aspect of it. But VAR doesn’t interrupt it. All it does is tack on 20 extra seconds to built-in delays. Or it overturns a call and renders the delay unnecessary. But that’s a palatable price to pay for avoiding critical refereeing errors.

And by the way: I’d be all for eliminating the pitchside monitor reviews. When refs view the replay themselves, confirmation bias is unavoidable. And if the video assistant doesn’t see enough to overturn a call, it isn’t a “clear and obvious error.” So hell yeah, let’s do away with them.

Referees will be able to consult video replays and video assistant referees (VAR) during the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)
Referees will be able to consult video replays and video assistant referees (VAR) during the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

But those are a small fraction of reviews. The vast majority merely involve the ref putting his hand to his earpiece and communicating with the VAR. Do you still have a problem with that? I think that’s important to clear up. How much of your whining is about the VAR concept, and how much of it is about implementation and execution?

Leander Schaerlaeckens: First off: sure, soccer stops as well. But a good two-thirds of the playing time is action, which is a multiple of most sports. Baseball and (American) football offer, on average, less than 20 minutes of action per three-hour game. So relatively, soccer is action-packed. Why do anything to hamper its great differentiator?

I also don’t accept that stoppages are only an extra 20 seconds. Very often, and especially in the pivotal moments, that just isn’t so. And maybe my evidence is anecdotal, but it sticks in the mind, and that’s every bit as damaging.

The pitchside monitor is awful. There’s a simple fix there though: let the TV viewer and fan in the stadium see what the ref is looking at.

Here, as in all my other issues with VAR, my gripe is with the execution, not the construct of replay itself. If we can get the big stuff right more often, so much the better. My concern is with taking it too far, like reviewing every call. And, again, my issue with it at present is that it runs roughshod over the game’s rhythm. Speed it up considerably – like goal-line technology, which renders a verdict instantaneously – and me and VAR will be BFF.

Henry Bushnell: See, I’m fine with that take. Because it will speed up. It will become ingrained in the game’s rhythm, rather than running roughshod over it.

I think you and I agree that VAR shouldn’t be in use at the 2018 World Cup. Part of the reasoning is that a majority of central refs in Russia next month will be working with it for the first time in competitive matches.

And that, precisely, is the source of all VAR problems. It’s not that the technology or the system is flawed. It’s that the humans using it and implementing it aren’t doing so correctly. And this is my overarching point. It’s why I get so frustrated with the vast majority of anti-VAR takes. Yours, and so many others, assume the execution won’t improve. Of course it will! And of course it’s shoddy in the early days! What complex skill have you ever adopted and perfected on the spot?

The s—storm that met VAR at the Confederations Cup last summer, and in Europe this past season, was so f’ing predictable. People freaked out because it wasn’t flawless right away. It was infuriating. Just like so many other innovations or advancements, VAR is going to take time to hone. The only way to hone it is for refs and video assistants to learn on the job. Execution is already far better today than it was last summer. It will be far better at this time next year than it is now.

I get that it will never be flawless. I get that there are a few procedural problems that go beyond individual errors. But it’s not like this exact process is written into IFAB’s laws forever. Rulemakers can tweak it. Refs, with experience, will make it smoother. Players and fans will grow accustomed to it. This is the arc that all overreactive resistance to change follows. So can we please walk back this take?


Leander Schaerlaeckens: Walk it back? Never. Mostly because I don’t recall writing it. And, secondarily, because it got a pretty good amount of retweets and likes, which by the Laws of the Internet means I am irrevocably correct.

I think, in the end, we’re circling the same argument. You think VAR is good because it will improve the sport’s fairness, with time. I think it’s bad because it’s deleterious in the short term, and I think there were a lot of kinks to iron out before implementing it.

I don’t want referees to “learn on the job,” as you put it. Why do that? Why not have them practice this in simulated games? Or lower-level games? Why do they have to learn it AT THE WORLD CUP?! If the Confederations Cup demonstrated anything, it was that the refs were grotesquely underprepared to use VAR. So throwing a bunch of different referees into the deep end under the glare of the world, and seeing if they might thrash hard enough to stay afloat, is incomprehensible.

I’m also not so sure that, in the current usage, VAR will speed up sufficiently. I’d argue a better solution would be to give the video ref the authority to overrule the center ref, rather than to just advise and provide replays. That would be quicker. Anything would be quicker. I need it to be quicker.

But fine, VAR isn’t inherently bad. The application of it is. Because I am an impatient man.

Previous FC Yahoo Mixers:
Dissecting our staff’s World Cup power rankings
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi: Who’s better?
How damaging is USMNT’s World Cup absence?
Which USMNT World Cup team – post-1990 – was best?

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