Football is perhaps too frenetic and human to completely embrace video referees
At 8.27pm local time on 16 April, the English-language Twitter handle of German football club Mainz 05 posted an update that will surely go down in the minor annals of contemporary football.
Under a picture of midfielder Pablo de Blasis celebrating with clenched fists and mouth agape, were the words: “YESSS! We’re confused. But we’ve scored!"
What transpired in the run-up to that tweet will have football fans on edge ahead of the World Cup in Russia.
Referee Guido Winkmann had called half-time in the Bundesliga match between Mainz and SC Freiburg at the Opel Arena stadium, Mainz’s home ground. Winkmann, reports later revealed, was half-way down the tunnel leading from the pitch side to the dressing rooms when he suddenly stopped, and put a finger to his ear. A message had come over the wireless microphone strapped to his face.
The referee walked out again, and watched the replays of an incident that had taken place shortly before half-time. Then, he did something quite unprecedented. He called the teams back to the pitch, announced that a Freiburg player had handled the ball in the penalty box, and then awarded a penalty to Mainz that de Blasis promptly scored. Then they all walked back down the tunnel again for half-time.
Everyone, barring perhaps the referee himself and his colleague, the video assistant referee (VAR), was flabbergasted. Mainz had scored, and they were confused. Freiburg had conceded, and they were confused, and enraged.
These events were just the latest, and perhaps the most telling, incidents in the ongoing saga about the use of VARs in football. With VARs due to be used for the first time at the World Cup in Russia, fans and players have reason to be perturbed.
So far, VAR trials in England, Italy and Germany have had what can only be called mixed results. While Italy’s Serie A seems to have taken to the video review system with cautious alacrity, the technology has few admirers.
Earlier this year, in a survey carried out by the Kicker magazine, England and Germany, 47% of German footballers said they did not want VAR.
Why has it been so hard to implement technology in football refereeing? Especially given that football is famously a game with simple rules—kick the ball between the posts for a goal, only goalies can handle the ball, the team with more goals wins, and, if the ball is out, you throw it back in (there are only 14 rules in football, one school-level coach told this writer many years ago).
For many years, it was felt that football administrators had an agenda against using technology to help referees do their jobs better. But experiences in England and Germany suggest that implementation continues to be a challenge. So much so that in Russia, VAR will only be used in four instances: goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards, and cases of mistaken identity.
Technology has been adopted so widely in many other sports, so why does football seem to have a problem?
Perhaps a slightly broader perspective on the issue—one that goes beyond the technology itself—can help explain the ongoing teething problems.
There is the frenetic nature of football itself, of course. Even the most interrupted of matches rarely end up clocking more than 10 minutes of added time across two halves of 45 minutes. In other words, the football is in play for more than 80% of the duration of a match.
This means that just a handful of appeals to the VAR will substantially slow down a match (a problem that will compound if referees feel they must repeatedly go back to VAR to avoid mistakes).
But the more profound problem might be the nature of law and order, so to speak, in football. Not only does gamesmanship play a large role in the sport, the human interpretation of rules, and the limitations therein, play a crucial role.
Strikers time their runs not to avoid the offside trap, but in order to get the time perfect to avoid an offside call from the linesman. Whether they are actually offside or not is irrelevant.
As we have already seen, for instance in the FA Cup, giving referees high-tech cameras has not helped assuage fears of subjectivity. Referees will still have to make a choice. Indeed, Germany’s head of VAR was replaced this season after reports that he had influenced two penalty decisions. The human, it seems, will still see what he wants to see.
Finally, there is the issue of criticality. Football matches, unlike many other sporting competitions, can completely turn on a single refereeing decision. After studying VAR decisions for the first half of the Serie A season in January, league officials said that of the 1,078 decisions sent to a VAR, 60 on-field decisions had been overturned, and mistakes had been made in only 11 cases.
An error rate, they claimed, of just 1%.
But critics will look at this another way. Of the 60 times VAR overturned a referee, it was wrong 11 times.
Perhaps the thing with football is that it is too human.