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21 June 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:20pm

Football is getting VAR wrong – it should learn from cricket

Rather than learning from what others have done right, football has developed just about the worst system possible.

By Jonny SInger

There are all sorts of wonderful sights in cricket – a Virat Kohli cover drive, Jos Buttler biffing the ball into the stands, Mitchel Starc sending a stump cartwheeling past the wicket-keeper.

But over the past few years a new one has emerged as a fan favourite – the non-review. Picture this: A bowler thuds the ball into the batsman’s pads and begins to appeal, joined by his entire team – keeper, slips and just about everyone else imploring the umpire to put his finger up. Sometimes the bowler might even take a breath and then launch into a second shout, so sure is he that the official must see things his way.

The umpire remains unmoved and captain, wicket-keeper and bowler congregate to decide if they should call on Hawkeye and the Decision Review System to attempt to overturn this injustice. “Probably pitched outside leg,” admits the keeper. The bowler, seconds ago so adamant, shrugs his shoulders. The umpire, they concede, was probably right. On with the game.

During the ongoing Cricket World Cup, you’ll probably see this scene, or something like it, at least once a match – sometimes more. The bowler’s disbelief at not getting a decision dissolving, inside the 15-second limit, into acceptance. From that moment, even if it turns out the umpire was wrong, the players have no reason to complain – they didn’t really think it was out either.

The contrast to football could not be starker. The FIFA Women’s World Cup, taking place concurrently with cricket’s showpiece, has been blighted by controversy around the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Penalties are given, then reversed. Or not given, and then awarded after a protracted delay. And then retaken once they’ve been saved.

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The Copa America, which got underway last week in Brazil has seen similarly chaotic scenes. The correct decisions may be being reached, mostly, but the idea that VAR might somehow clear things up and make them simpler is being quickly exposed as a pipe dream.

So why has football got it so wrong? While most mass-market sports have been using technology for a decade, the world’s biggest one is only just catching up. But rather than learning from what others have done right, football has developed just about the worst system possible.

The first mistake, and the biggest, is to put the responsibility on the referees. They already have to make impossible decisions, in a game that has become quicker and more physically demanding than ever. The sight of them trotting to the side of the pitch to examine their own decisions in slow-motion is dispiriting. Every eye in the stadium, plus all the cameras showing footage to the viewers at home, is focused on the official. It is the exact opposite of what a video replay system should be trying to achieve – focus on the results, not the referees.

Then you have the issue that by asking referees, in particular off-field referees, to determine which decisions are reviewed, you create controversy where none existed. No other major sport does this – even rugby, which puts the review process in the hands of the officials, only really does so at the say-so of the on-field referee (with the exception of unseen foul play). The result is dreadful for the spectacle, and the outcome.

Take Argentina’s penalty against Paraguay, awarded early this week. Not a single player noticed any offence when the ball struck a defender’s arm, deflecting it onto the crossbar. Lionel Messi was preparing to take a corner when the referee, advised by his VAR, stopped him. Six minutes later Messi stepped up to slot the resulting spot kick.

Was the correct decision made? Maybe (although it was not “deliberate” handball by any reasonable understanding of the word, it was in line with FIFA’s current guidelines). Would anyone have complained had it not been? Probably not. A penalty was manufactured where no appeal was made. Referees are no longer facilitators of the game, they have become its determiners.

Contrast that to South Africa’s Cricket World Cup match against New Zealand on Wednesday. Kane Williamson swung at an Imran Tahir delivery, which went through to Quinton de Kock, the wicket-keeper. Tahir appealed, but de Kock – standing up to the stumps and thus barely two yards from Williamson’s bat – did not. The umpire said not out, and South Africa never really considered reviewing – why would they, when the man closest to the action heard nothing? It turned out Williamson had actually edged the ball – a review would have been given out. But with no review, the Kiwi captain was able to go on and play a match-winning innings. Who was blamed? Not the umpire – how could he, 25 yards away, have heard something that de Kock did not? It was the South African keeper, and his captain, who copped the flak, not the official. 

Divorcing players from the process means that their dissent is not quelled, but multiplied. Perhaps it is just that the system is still bedding in (the Premier League will only adopt it for the first time next season, despite the fact that it has been around in some form for a couple of years) but players don’t trust that the right decision has been reached, so they still argue with the officials. Football is more subjective than cricket, or tennis, but that’s not the only problem. If you take the players out of the decision-making on reviews, they rebel, rather than accepting.

Tied up with this absurd decision to put the referee in charge of the process, is the fact that there is no limitation to reviews. Games are lasting longer than ever, with each stoppage taking several minutes and an unlimited number of them. Again, this is a problem that most sports solved a decade ago.

In cricket, the teams have one incorrect review per innings (two in Test matches). If you waste it, it’s gone, so players are extremely careful only to challenge an umpire if they are certain he is wrong.

Similarly, in American Football, perhaps the most built-for-television sport the world has ever seen, an incorrect challenge costs the teams one of their precious time outs. Given time on the clock in the final two minutes is such a valuable commodity, throwing a challenge flag on a 50-50 call is a potentially game-costing waste. It means that some “incorrect” decisions will go unchanged – but if that happens, blame the player, or the coach.

Football has a perfect, built-in answer – substitutions. Substitutes are a way to relieve tired or injured players, or to change the game tactically. A substitution is not worth as much as a goal, but they are still a crucial resource.

So here is the system. If you don’t like a decision then the captain, or the coach, can challenge it when the ball next goes out of play (with a 15-second limit). If you get it right, the decision is overturned. If not, you lose a sub.

If you’ve already used all your subs – tough luck. If a player goes off injured later, you’ll go down to ten. That way, if you know the referee has had a nightmare, you review. But if you’re not sure – you just accept his decision. And the game moves on.

To say that VAR is “ruining” football is hyperbolic, but it is a poor use of the technology available. And with so many years of seeing how other sports have made it work, there really is no excuse.

Jonny Singer is the Laws of Cricket Advisor at MCC, as well as a part-time freelance football journalist .

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