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It's impossible now to make VAR more lenient – it has to be all or nothing


The VAR situation in the Premier League has grown so fractious that IFAB (the International Football Association Board) has felt the need to be publicly critical. Speaking on Monday, Lukas Brud, the organisation’s general secretary, said that:

"With VAR we see some things that are going in a direction that we may need to re-adjust.

“If you spend multiple minutes trying to identify whether it is offside or not, then it's not clear and obvious and the original decision should stand. What we really need to stress is that 'clear and obvious' applies to every single situation that is being reviewed by the VAR or the referee.

“In theory, 1mm offside is offside, but if a decision is taken that a player is not offside and the VAR is trying to identify through looking at five, six, seven, 10, 12 cameras whether or not it was offside, then the original decision should stand. We are not looking to make a better decision, we are trying to get rid of the clear and obvious mistakes.”

Anyone who spent time watching football over Christmas will unanimously agree with Brud’s assessment. The implied need for refereeing perfection has led the game to a place where, at one point in time, these delays and these stoppages and – ultimately – all this geometry, was deemed necessary.

In many ways, then, this is the decade’s perfect emblem. At the end of a 10-year cycle during which the conversation around football became louder and less tolerant, the sport has adjusted itself around that emotional incontinence, sterilising itself to the point of being – at certain moments – completely unwatchable.

Of course, there’s a technical conversation to be had, too. Also a series of discussions about why the Premier League and the PGMOL are, having delivered such a poor product, now having to be corrected in their interpretation. Mainly, though, while the Best and Worst lists are being compiled, goals are being ranked, and matches are being shuffled into the order of their importance to the decade, it’s tempting to see this as a situation which we all created and the perfect legacy of 10 years spent moaning about anything that wasn’t precisely correct.

The question of what to do about it is very difficult, though. Impulsively, the answer seems to be to restrict VAR’s powers – to implement a margin for error with its offside adjudications, to provide clarity as to what constitutes a clear and obvious mistake and to reboot the whole system using better-defined parameters. Tempting though that may be, it’s really impossible. Practically it can happen, but now that VAR has been used with such excruciating prejudice, a more lenient version would struggle for credibility.

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Imagine, for instance, trying to sell a supporter on an offside decision given against their side, which depended on a margin for error. If, having seen the technology applied so precisely in the past, they are then told that although the means exist to prove that a goal shouldn’t have stood, they have to accept the mistake in the spirit of the game. Rather than curing the current issues, it would most likely create a different sort of frustration, not least with the bizarre contradiction of VAR being encouraged to be willfully blind.

So the cat is out of the bag. The genie is out of the bottle. Making changes in the other direction might have worked, because an increasingly strict VAR would have been a semi-logic progression. But the other way? No chance. It cannot and will not work like that. Once someone has stepped through the wardrobe and into Narnia, they cannot be expected to forget the experience. From that moment on, they will compare everything to it, referencing back to it at any and every opportunity.

Which, in a tenuous way, illustrates the problem that football now faces. There is no such thing as too much or too little VAR, because its complicated premise is so obviously at odds with what, at its core, is a very simple game. Instead, it either has to exist in its full form now, or not at all. Either the game doubles down on this excruciating new direction or it takes an axe to something which threatens its permanent disfigurement. There can be no compromise.

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