Thursday 19 July 2018

First bloom of the brave VAR era is not without blemish

 

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: David Klein/Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: David Klein/Reuters

Comment: Oliver Brown

For a man so passionately in favour of video assistant referees, Antonio Conte seems surprisingly uncertain about how the system is deployed. "VAR, VAR!" the Chelsea manager screamed, when Cesc Fabregas tumbled in the box against Arsenal, before referee Martin Atkinson chose to refer the incident for review, ultimately ruling against a penalty.

The Italian even used his fingers to draw a square, the standard semaphore for requesting the third umpire in cricket, forgetting that a demand for the VAR was not his prerogative. Advocates of the technology can talk all they like about how it will promote peace and harmony in football, but on this evidence it will do nothing to stop the aggrieved party from whirling around like a dervish on the touchline.

We are still in the first bloom of the VAR era, where many fans remain agnostic or just plain oblivious. And no wonder, when the referee's signal for video help is simply to put a finger to his ear, a gesture unlikely to be picked up by 50,000 fans desperate to see how a contentious decision will be resolved. In contrast to rugby or tennis, a fundamental flaw with football's equivalent lies in understanding when it is even happening.

Mike Riley claims, as referees chief in English football, that this week's two-game experiment with VAR has gone "very well" and that the "right outcomes" have been reached. Such confidence, on the basis of 180 minutes' play in which no decision had to be overturned, looks premature. Take Glenn Murray's winning goal for Brighton against Crystal Palace, which referee Andre Marriner discussed with VAR Neil Swarbrick to check for evidence of handball.

While the outcome was acceptable even to Palace manager Roy Hodgson, who agreed that the goal was genuine, the process was open to question.

It was unclear, for example, whether Swarbrick had seen the definitive behind-the-goal angle to rule out any suggestion of handling until after the game had restarted. Plus, Brighton replayed the footage on the Amex Stadium's giant screens, in contravention of VAR rules.

Time, one trusts, will iron out a few of these teething troubles. In Italy, Roberto Rosetti, the former referee overseeing a more widespread engagement with VAR in Serie A, claims that an average of three mistakes per match are avoided, while the number of fouls is also dropping due to players' mindfulness that they are more closely watched.

This is not to say, though, that the innovation does much to protect the essence of a football match as a fluent and rumbustious occasion. "It's turning into baseball," said Juventus's Massimiliano Allegri, weary at all the stoppages. "You're at the stadium 10 hours. You eat a few nuts. You see some action every quarter of an hour."

And yet the urgent debate around VAR should focus less on whether it ruins the tempo of a match than on whether its integrity is inviolate. Already, there are worrying inconsistencies. One problematic area is the insistence that VAR redresses only "clear and obvious" refereeing errors. Mistakes, however, do not always have to be clear-cut to count as such. It is remarkable, too, that a system designed to take so much argument and consternation out of football still creates a recipe for chaos.

For proof, look no further than last season's Johann Cruyff Cup in Holland, between Feyenoord and Vitesse Arnhem.

First Vitesse midfielder Karim El Ahmadi was tripped, triggering shouts for a penalty, only for Feyenoord to counter-attack and score through Nicolai Jorgensen. When referee Danny Makkelie, who had initially waved play on, asked for clarification from his video assistant, the goal was scrubbed out and Vitesse were awarded a penalty that Alex Buttner converted.

In the space of two minutes and 25 seconds, the scoreline had changed from 1-0 to 2-0 to 1-1 amid scenes of incredulity.

Just as no referee is immune to human fallibility, there is no version of VAR free from imperfection.

Why, for instance, is the video assistant free to review straight red cards but not second yellows, when both punishments disadvantage a team the same?

Even in countries further down the VAR road, the gripes are legion: in Germany, communication lines between the grounds and video headquarters in Cologne have failed, while some video officials have interpreted the "clear and obvious" rule more loosely than others.

According to the latest surveys, 47 per cent of Bundesliga players would like to see the system abolished.

VAR, to be sure, is a popular fad - as shown by the bizarre sight of fans chanting for it - but it is far too early to tell if it heralds a bloodless revolution. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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