The following blog was originally posted at PositivelyArsenal.com on June 30, 2018. Readers may be interested in comparing my predictions then to the state of VAR today.
VAR at the 2018 World Cup is the 21st century Russian Revolution. It is the football equivalent of “Seven Days That Shook The World” over 100 years ago. As happened in Europe and the world, for decades thereafter, nothing in football refereeing will remain the same after the VAR revolution at the 2018 World Cup.
Despite the bitter, vicious whingeing in the media by the luddite pundits who bang on endlessly that it is the end of football, i.e. the end of those “good times” when referees, wittingly or not, could erroneously award penalties and off-side goals without real-time review, despite the doubters, VAR has burst on the world stage proving that with technology the accuracy of refereeing decisions can decisively increase, especially on those game-changing decisions.
According to FIFA’s referee committee head, Pierluigi Collina, that so far at the World Cup, 99.3 percent of “match-changing” decisions were called correctly at — “very, very close to perfection” — based on assessments by him and other senior ex-referees. Who in their right mind, after seeing world cup after world cup (my 12th tournament since 1970) where usually “smaller nations” get screwed over by a decisive penalty or off-side call, could be against VAR? Which England fan, with two working neurons and the ability to think independently, could be opposed to a video ref review after Maradonna’s infamous “hand of god” goal? Which Gooner, having experienced in the PL a 120% plus increase in Penalties-Against the club in the ten years up to 16-17 compared to the previous period, be satisfied with the current state of affairs.
End of absolute referee power
So why is this a revolution? There is no bloody uprising, no raging factions of Girondists vs Jacobins, Mensheviks vs Bolsheviks, etc. engaged in terminal struggle. Yet it is my hypothesis that the impact of VAR is potentially as significant as any other revolution in the sport. First, the absolute power of the refereeing authorities to make game changing dictions has ended. It may take some months to become reality but the success of VAR on the world stage is the beginning of the end of those refereeing organizations who have delayed and procrastinated on the use of technology to ensure football officials get the big decisions absolutely right.
It is remarkable that up to 2018, football will be the last among the major sports to adopt technology. Is there anything more incongruous; in a world of 4k, ultra definition TV, where viewers can literally see every bead of sweat on a player’s brow, much less a blatant foul or hand-ball offence in real time, the Premier League with all its multi-billion tv revenue, will be the last among the major European leagues to adopt VAR. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.
How often have we seen referees dismiss with arrogance and impunity appeals made by players-managers-fans to reverse decisions that were blatant errors on their part. A mealy-mouth apology at end of season via a journalist or some other friendly audience regretting the error will not bring back 2 or 3 points dropped because of a bad decision. Multiply such “errors” two or three times over a season and three lost points multiply to as much 9. One doesn’t have to be a statistical genius to appreciate that in a league of fine margins, with a top-4 place more than a trophy (now the equivalent a gold or platinum plated Preferred Card to the riches of the champions league) that refereeing errors is simply unacceptable in deciding the results of games.
Even more revolutionary, to my mind, is how VAR will restrict the ability of the honchos who are the real power in the various leagues (Premier, UEFA, FIFA, etc.) from being able to appoint their favorite referee to manipulate a game to achieve a desired result. The biggest and most recent scandal, Calciopoli in Italy, centered on the fixers being able to have their corrupted referee being appointed to do certain games. Fortunately for the Italian investigators, who busted the perpetrators, they had recorded telephone conversations between the plotters.
So far no hard evidence has emerged of English referees being corrupted despite the increased legitimization of gaming companies being involved with English football, the massive rise in sports-related gambling rings in Asia and elsewhere and the reports of certain referees receiving favors from bookmakers. But some of us refuse to be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists, refuse to abandon commonsense, and refuse to ignore the laws of human nature. Throughout history wherever there is massive amounts of money to be had, without transparency and aggressive policing of the players, corrupting forces will flourish with gay abandon.
Media in disarray
The striking thing to date is how the VAR revolution has the English media in general disarray. Until recently, anything about the World Cup, particularly Russia, was negative. Football lovers were urged to avoid land of Putin as it was a cesspool of racist, violent football hooligans. Apparently the legions of fans who traveled from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and many European countries to support their teams simply ignored the advice of certain media and were/are only too happy to enjoy the hospitality of the Russians and to party from city-to-city, unmolested.
Pre-world cup the English football media was generally united that they, with a few well chosen propaganda points, could deceive the public that VAR doesn’t or couldn’t work. One prominent example is Barney Ronay of The Guardian, in my opinion their best exponent of Orwellian double-speak, who as recent as last January after only the 3rd trial of VAR by the Football League concluded:
“The fact is, for all the expertise, the manpower, the money spent, VAR just doesn’t work in football. It diminishes the experience of watching in the stadium. It skews the game decisively one way. It is one of those ideas, like bendy buses, or communism, that would simply be better off abandoned.”
Notice by the way the allusion to communism. Apparently you have to be a communist to want fair-play in football. Is there anything more Orwellian?
Eight months later the Guardian is a little more “guarded” (pardon the pun), one may say they even ebullient in their assessment of VAR. In a column headlined The video ref is the rising star of this World Cup, penned by a Jack Bernhardt and published by June 19th, long before the conclusion of the group stages of the World Cup, he wrote:
“Sure, there have been a few high-profile mistakes. VAR should have spotted Harry Kane being wrestled to the ground by Tunisia’s defenders last night, and if England hadn’t won the Sun would have run the headline “What a bunch of VARseholes”. But to me, VAR is much more than a silly extra gimmick, or something new and shiny that exists just to irritate Mark Lawrenson – it’s actually changing the dynamic of the sport.
“But if a referee knows they can review a decision, it becomes inherently less arbitrary. As such, everyone has more faith in the system, so there are fewer frustrated outbursts, and less of a need for a referee to stamp their authority on the game. That’s borne out by the stats: with no red cards in the first 14 matches, this is officially the cleanest start to a World Cup in 32 years.”
Expect a counter revolution
The success of VAR is not guaranteed. Like any revolution, there will be a counter revolution. Europe is replete with examples. The French are now enduring their 5th Republic. The Soviet Union has ceased to exist.
The Powers That Be (PTOB) may be off-balance by the current success of VAR but it won’t be for long. Without a vigilant footballing public I am absolutely sure it will be corrupted to the detriment of fair play.
The referees are not perfect and they are swayed by their inherent, historical bias towards the traditionally big footballing nations (easily change that to big-spending football clubs). Carlos Quieroz is absolutely correct that Ronaldo should have been sent off for that deliberate foul vs Iran, not a yellow card after the VAR review. The Moroccans have filed a complaint to FIFA showing 10 instances where they were shafted during their game vs Spain. Similarly the Serbians are still incensed by decisions against them in the game vs Switzerland particularly that incident when Lichsteiner and cohort wrested Mitroivic to the ground with absolutely no call. Already The Telegraph via Keith Hackett are arguing that “VAR officials are hunting for decisions to make and interfering when not needed.” But, as the smaller footballing nations at the World Cup have experienced, there is need for more VAR when the referees have made error not less.
As for those of us who follow the Premier League, it will be interesting to see how our lords and masters react to the success of VAR in Russia. As ArsenalAndrew, who is a long-time advocate of VAR tweeted: