VAR, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin.
That certainly appeared to be the view of Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar, who offered an expletive-laden critique of the Video Assistant Referee system after his side crashed out of the Champions League Wednesday.
Neymar took issue with referee Damir Skomina’s decision to award Manchester United a stoppage-time penalty after Diego Dalot’s shot struck Presnel Kimpembe and sailed over the crossbar.
It was only after consulting the VAR screen pitchside that Skomina changed his mind, awarding the penalty that Marcus Rashford scored to send United through to the quarterfinals. The Slovenian referee adjudged the ball had struck Kimpembe’s arm, which was away from his body.
Almost immediately, pundits, former players and referees began to debate whether it was the correct decision, with little consensus to be found.
Former English Premier League referee Peter Walton insisted the awarding of a penalty was the correct decision.
“We called it straight away — the way Kimpembe has gone up there he’s left his arm out, he’s turned his back and he’s taken no responsibility for the way the ball has struck him,” Walton told BT Sport.
“It’s a huge decision and that’s exactly why VAR has been brought in. As the law is written at the moment, that’s handball.”
Walton’s opinion was challenged by former England and Manchester United footballer Owen Hargreaves, who said: “Every football person will say it’s not a penalty. It’s hard for players — what do you do in that situation? Where do you go with your arms?”
Other former referees such as Mark Halsey and Keith Hackett also said they disagreed with the decision in posts on Twitter.
VAR has caused plenty of controversy during its debut season in the Champions League. But those who objected on the criteria that it would deprive the game of drama appear to have found their fears misplaced — it’s just t a very different kind of drama.
“I think that with VAR, there is always emotion,” UEFA’s head of refereeing Roberto Rosetti and the man responsible for overseeing the use of VAR in the Champions League told CNN.
“Maybe in some situations, there is a double emotion. VAR cannot kill football. It cannot kill emotions.”
According to the rules, the use of VAR technology is limited to four types of incident.
- Goals — whether they should stand or ruled out because of potential violations (fouls, offside, etc) in the build up.
- Penalties — if the referee has made the correct decision in either awarding one or not following an incident in the box.
- Straight red cards — to make sure an incident on the pitch receives the correct ruling from the referee.
- Cases of mistaken identity — when a referee awards a yellow or red card to the wrong player.
There was a fear that the introduction of such rules would have a negative effect, slowing the game down and lead to constant appeals to use the technology by players and coaches alike.
But while there have certainly been some teething problems, the addition of VAR appears to have added a new layer of drama to the action.
The time between the referee being made aware of a review, deciding to go and watch a replay on the screen, and then giving a decision, has become one of the most dramatic moments of a contest as shown by events in Paris last week.
‘Part of the drama’
“There was a big danger that VAR would drain the drama,” leading football commentator Ian Darke told CNN.
“There was a suggestion that you would lose the moment, that everybody would be waiting and thinking, ‘is it a goal?’ but I don’t think it has quite worked out like that.
“With VAR, you might have to build a bridge in to the commentary if there’s some doubt around the decision but you still do the goal call — that kind of orgasmic moment in commentary.
“If there’s a four-minute delay before you get a decision, I don’t think we should be moaning about it, but rather trying to make a positive out of it and make it part of the drama.”
Darke, who commentated on the first game to use VAR in England during the FA Cup tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace last season, believes the lack of education around the system has led to confusion.
He met with the head of English referee’s Mike Riley before that FA Cup game in January 2018 where he was guided through all the rules and permutations.
Like a lot of commentators, he wants to make sure he is able to explain to the public exactly how the system works.
“We do have to keep explaining how the process works to people and I’m not sure that everyone realizes that it only applies to four categories and not every incident in the game,” Darke added.
Fellow commentator Dave Farrar, who has covered games in Major League Soccer and Serie A in Italy, believes referees need to give more information to the public if the system is going to be widely understood.
“I’d like to see referees explain why the decisions were made because otherwise it’s going to take them years to get it across,” Farrar told CNN.
“It doesn’t need to be a two-way thing like an interview, but a referee putting out a statement with why they gave certain decisions.
“It’s still baby steps on how the relationship works between VAR and the referee.
“I’m fortunate that I have people to talk to, including an ex-referee, who can advise me on why decisions have been made and if they’re right or wrong. When you listen to a referee, it becomes a lot clearer why a red card was shown or penalty given.”
While confusion often surrounds the use of VAR, with supporters, coaches and supporters often desperate for information, the air of anticipation has added an almost “reveal” like moment into the game.
“Sadly, I think that VAR has made the game more exciting, which it was not supposed to do,” Farrar added.
“The only reason VAR is there is to get everything right. Now you have that drum roll moment when the referee goes to the monitor and you see the slow motion replaying playing out. It has made the game more exciting for the wrong reasons.”
If VAR’s performance at the 2018 World Cup in Russia was largely hailed as successful, the system’s presence in this season’s Champions League has caused plenty of controversy.
The system also came under fire in Wednesday’s other Champions League game, with Roma owner Jim Pallotta furious with the technology’s application as his side crashed out against Porto.
Roma, having won the first leg 2-1, trailed by the same scoreline as the game entered extra-time.
It was then that Porto was awarded a penalty after Alessandro Florenzi’s shirt tug on Fernando was given by the referee following consultation with VAR.
The goal gave Porto a 3-1 lead on the night, 4-3 on aggregate.
Roma’s fury increased just minutes later when Patrik Schick appeared to be clipped inside the Porto penalty area, only for neither the referee nor VAR to award a spot kick.
For Pallotta, whose side reached the semifinal of the competition last season where it was on the end of some questionable refereeing decisions, Wednesday’s decisions were the final straw.
“Last year we asked for VAR in the Champions League because we got screwed in the semifinal and tonight, they’ve got VAR and we still get robbed,” he said in a statement.
“Patrik Schick was clearly clipped in the box, VAR shows it, and nothing is given. I’m tired of this crap. I give up.”
Another embarrassing occurred during Manchester City’s 3-2 win at Schalke last month.
On that occasion two penalties were awarded during a 10-minute period where the system was suffering with technical difficulties.
That led to a long delay over both decisions with the players, coaches and supporters inside the stadium unclear as to what was happening.
According to UEFA, when a malfunction occurs, protocol allows for VAR to describe to the on-field official what can be seen on television replays, but not advise on the decision that should be taken.
Rules dictate that the on-field official must make the decision based on “his own perception and the information received orally from the VAR.”
“When a new system starts, it is like a manager arriving at a club. Within a few months, people expect you to win every game 6-0,” Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said after the game.
“VAR has appeared but it needs time and it will improve. The referee’s screen was broken but next time it will be better. I support the initiative because we try to be fair at football and the sometimes the referees are not able to realize with their decisions and need help, VAR’s intention is to be of help.”
‘Lack of clarity’
One of the chief complaints about the use of VAR has come from supporters inside the stadium.
While a big screen will often show the crowd that a decision is being considered by the referee, the time it takes and lack of information given to match-going fans compared to those watching at home remains a source of frustration for some.
The English Football Supporters Federation believes more clarity is needed to ensure fans are not left out of the loop during matches.
“Previously the FSF supported the introduction of goal-line technology providing that the results were instantaneous and didn’t break the flow of the game,” a spokesperson for the FSF told CNN.
“Clearly that isn’t happening with VAR — in moments when games have been interrupted for reviews there has been a lack of clarity about how decisions are made and a lack of communication in relaying information to match-going supporters.
“Like everyone in football the FSF is keeping a close eye on this and, as a member organization, we’ll be speaking to supporters to see how they feel VAR is progressing.”
Andy Heaton, a Liverpool fan who writes for the Anfield Wrap, agrees that more needs to be done for those at the game ahead of VAR’s introduction into the Premier League next season.
He says the the lack of communication given to supporters and the length of time it takes to make a decision is ruining the experience for supporters inside the stadium.
“I think VAR takes away the spontaneity of the game,” he told CNN.
“The waiting around for the referee, waiting for a decision, it kills the atmosphere. I’m not a technophobe by any stretch. Goal-line technology is great, it works and you get an instant answer.
“But VAR feels subjective. The fact there are still arguments over the penalty in the PSG-United game over whether it was right or wrong kind of points to that.”
As with any new technical innovation in sport, and particularly football, there is always some skepticism.
But Rosetti, who first started working with VAR three years ago and took up his role as UEFA’s chief refereeing officer in August 2018, believes people will come round eventually.
“We have to underline that this project is not perfect, and we know that very well,” he added.
“We are talking about football, we are talking about interpretations and you know that in football there are a lot of refereeing interpretations.”