Forget the hysteria: VAR can work – it just needs time


Although the first laws of football were drawn up in 1863, on-field referees weren’t introduced for another 28 years. Deeply unpopular at first, they found their decisions disputed and were even prone to assault. Clubs and spectators alike had become used to two umpires – one per side – convening to make decisions, with any disagreements between them settled by an off-field referee. They probably thought this newfangled development was ruining the game.

That’s the most extreme assessment of VAR – the rolling out of which constitutes the most significant change to how the game is officiated since those pioneering days. Considering that and football’s inherent desire for instant gratification, the vociferous reaction it provokes is unsurprising – but it was desperately needed in order to aid officials and is here to stay.

Expecting the system to work with the utmost efficiency so soon just isn’t realistic. Having only been in use since December 2016, it’s barely beyond its infancy. It’s going to take years for it to properly settle into the game and feel natural, not invasive.

We can all see that it's far from perfect. It's arguably too time-consuming; it sometimes fails to intervene when it should – elbowing and spitting incidents were missed in England's Women's World Cup win over Cameroon on Sunday (opens in new tab); it skews certain actions into appearing more deliberate or serious than they are; the process isn't always visible to supporters in the stadium.

It's still premature to be writing it off, though. VAR and (more to the point) those using it have to be given time to improve through trial and error. Granted, progress has been slow so far, but two-and-half years is not much time in the grand scheme of things.

Many of VAR’s perceived flaws aren’t its flaws at all; they’re the laws’. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the retaken Argentina penalty that knocked Scotland out of the Women’s World Cup, the Premier League announced that they won't use the technology for goalkeeper encroachment next season. If VAR helps to highlight poor or harsh laws, that's a big positive.

Another heavily used stick with which to beat VAR is that it drains the game of emotion. That’s rather an exaggeration. The suggestion that it will eventually stop the celebration of goals doesn’t stand up. In time, it ought to make spectators watch matches with more scrutiny – which has to be a good thing. Goals will still prompt jubilation, but more of the disallowed ones should be seen coming.

Whatever its intricacies, VAR was conceived to ultimately improve the game. It’s unfamiliar, unrefined and unpopular, but so to the Victorians was the presence of a man in the middle with a whistle. This is easier said than done, given football's instant gratification problem, but we need to take a step back from the hysteria, accept that VAR is still very much a work in progress and see its positive potential.

In the eyes of some, it may never have a place in the game; for those who still entertain the idea of it, no matter how slightly, it's a case of being patient.

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Tom Hancock started freelancing for FourFourTwo in April 2019 and has also written for The Analyst and When Saturday Comes, among others. He supports Wycombe Wanderers and has a soft spot for Wealdstone. A self-confessed statto, he has been known to watch football with a spreadsheet (or several) open...