VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: IS IT REDUCING OR INCREASING CONTROVERSY
The post has been authored by Anshul Ramesh.
Anshul is a fourth-year student of the B.A. LL.B. course at the prestigious O.P. Jindal Global University (JGU). He is extremely interested in exploring the inter-linkage between football and the law.
In this blog post, the author initially argues that the Video Assistant Referee ("VAR") which was introduced in the footballing world to help the on-field referee in arriving at the correct decision, has added more controversy than before. The article would further establish that VAR is making decisions in the referee's stead (in the EPL), and this is against the laws of the game. Moreover, the article elaborates on some aspects of VAR, such as the 'clear and obvious error' rule and thereafter the article concludes by making the readers question the viability of VAR so far.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there has been a substantial increase in viewership of games across all leagues. This increase has got the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”) into the spotlight to a larger extent, and there arises the need for a reality check concerning its effectiveness. VAR was introduced in 2016 in the footballing world to help achieve higher accuracy in decision-making. VAR is football’s first use of technology which supplements the on-field referee in making the right judgment. Its role is similar to that of the Decision Review System in Cricket and Hawk-Eye in Tennis. VAR intervenes in a game in four game-changing scenarios:
1. Goals 2. Penalties 3. Red cards 4. Mistaken identity
While VAR’s introduction was supposed to aid in bringing justice to the game, this article will describe if that remains a delusion or a reality. A lot has changed in the functioning of VAR ever since it was introduced. In the 2018 World Cup which featured the use of VAR, the final decision was always made by the on-field referee after having an opportunity to assess the replays himself via the Referee Review Area (“RRA”), a TV monitor meant for the on-field referee to watch replays in slow motion. Ever since, there has been a change in the final decision making power, which has gradually shifted from the on-field referee to the VAR. It is argued that the VAR ‘assists’ the on-field referee, and does not subsume the power of decision making. It is further argued that VAR brings more controversy than before, and has caused immense displeasure in the footballing world.
LAWS GOVERNING VAR
The VAR concept was created by the International Football Association Board (“IFAB”), the rule-making authority in the game of football. The IFAB has bifurcated the VAR rules into four categories namely; Principles, Reviewable match-changing decisions, Practicalities, and Procedures. The Principles relating to VAR protocol as laid out by the IFAB, explicitly state that the final decision is always taken by the referee, which can be based either solely on the information provided to him by the VAR or the referee himself viewing the replay footage via the RRA. Post 31 July 2020, as per reports, the IFAB has handed over the responsibility of VAR to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) to ensure uniformness across all football leagues.
VAR: ADDING MORE CONTROVERSY?
There are some instances where the VAR seems to be violating or sidelining the law, especially in the English Premier League(“EPL”). To understand this better, a comparison has to be drawn between the VAR in “Bundesliga” (the highest league in Germany) and the VAR in the EPL (the highest league in England). In the Bundesliga for example, where the VAR was first introduced, the decision of a VAR for say, awarding or reversing the awarding of a penalty kick was done by the on-field referee himself. In other words, the VAR used to have the benefit of looking at various replays and if it came to the conclusion different than that to the referee, the referee was asked to review it by using the replays provided in the RRA. The final decision always rested with the on-field referee.
In comparison, when the VAR was introduced in the EPL, all decisions concerning the potential red cards, awarding penalty kicks were made by the VAR instead of the on-field referee. The Football Association (“FA”) is the regulatory and governing body overseeing football in all of the leagues in England. The EPL is mandatorily bound by the laws laid down by the FA. That being said, Law 5 of the FA Laws of the Game stipulates that;
“the referee will make the final decision which may be based solely on the information from the VAR and/or the referee reviewing the replay footage directly ('on-field review')” as should be the case.
This is also attested by the EPL’s official Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQ”) released on 1 June 2020, concerning VAR. From a legal angle, there does not seem to be a bar from referees using the RRA and taking the final call. In that case, referees are actively choosing to not contradict the decision of the VAR. It remains unclear how the EPL referees have been allowed to violate the laws of the game. Though there seems to be a lack of clarity, a possible justification is that referees find it convenient to rely on VAR making the decisions as they are expected to arrive at correct decisions due to the benefit of access of various replays from multiple angles, something not visible to the referee’s naked eye. Additionally, this will prevent any potential backlash on the on-field referees. This approach does not fit in with the larger purpose of VAR. Considering that VAR stands for ‘Video “Assistant” Referee’, it’s subsequent use as the ulterior decision-making tool in the EPL for controversial match-altering decisions remains problematic.
Similarly, a lot of game-changing decisions reviewed and even overturned by the VAR (except penalty kicks) have not been shown on television to viewers, commentators, and football pundits alike. While the determination of offsides is an objective decision, yet no viewers have been allowed to see whether it was offside or not. Some recent examples of this are - when Emi Martinez, the Arsenal goalkeeper looked to have handled the ball outside his goal line. It would have resulted in a red card, and yet no replays were shown to the footballing world. Again, in Bayern Munich’s sixth goal against FC Barcelona in the 8-2 hammering in Lisbon, showed Robert Lewandowski to be in an offside position to the naked eye, but no replays were shown (even the commentators felt that it was offside).
According to reports, this has been done to prevent controversies and putting the referees under less pressure, but one has to rethink if this is done to avoid any backlash and put the implementation of VAR under scrutiny. There needs to more clarity on when should a replay of a game-changing decision by VAR be shown. Ideally, keeping in mind the mental and psychological effect of crowds and players on referees making the decision, it should not be shown before the making of a decision. But there seems no justification as to why the replay should not be shown to the viewers, commentators, and pundits after the making of a decision.
Another controversial aspect of VAR is the high threshold for overturning decisions rendered by on-field referees. The ‘clear and obvious error rule’ has set a high bar for VAR to assist in overturning decisions concerning red cards and penalty kicks. Considering that what may be a ‘clear and obvious error’ would differ for an individual, it is prudent to let VAR come to a conclusion based on replays. The VAR overturning the decision of a referee because of a ‘clear and obvious error’ leading to achieving higher accuracy is a mere delusion, as it is a subjective opinion of the VAR which overrules the referee. This is again contrary to Law 5 of the FA Laws of the Game which states that the referee makes the final decision, and creates a divided opinion. The procedure should be conducted in a manner where the VAR plays a role in guiding the referee in coming to an accurate decision, especially in instances where the referee’s view of the incident is impaired, etc. The VAR can communicate its decision to the on-field referee, who may based on the VAR conclusion, choose to view replays of the said incident while arriving at a final call.
In cricket, subjective decisions such as uncertainty of the ball hitting the stumps, the decision is always held in favor of the ‘umpire’s call’. The decision-making though much more complex in football than in cricket, subjective decisions should be centered in the hands of the on-field referee. This will ensure that the umpire in football, namely the on-field referee is the only one who makes the final decision, and to achieve higher accuracy, he can use the VAR’s views to come to an informed decision.
If the point of VAR is to ensure fairness and better accuracy of game-changing decisions, the assessment of that accuracy should also rest with the general footballing world invariably, as stipulated above. Also, it is submitted that the outcome of a game-changing decision should always rest with the on-field referee, as was done in the Bundesliga. Through this mechanism, even if a clear and obvious error is committed by the on-field referee, he would have a good chance to see an ample amount of replays, eventually helping him out in arriving at a correct and informed decision. The VAR is apt for offering guidance both logistically and otherwise, but the on-field referee should be the one who finally orchestrates a decision. The only instances where the VAR’s decision should be final must be offsides, as those are purely objective. Conclusively, at this moment the expectations of VAR’s high success rate hasn’t been met and contrarily has led to more frustration amongst football fans.
The author can be reached for comments on his email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cite as: Anshul Ramesh, Video Assistant Referee: Is It Reducing or Increasing Controversy, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (10th September 2020), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/video-assistant-referee-is-it-reducing-or-increasing-controversy [Date of Access].