How to improve VAR? For everyone's sanity, remove its power to intervene on handball

How to improve VAR? For everyone's sanity, remove its power to intervene on handball
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A crucial Champions League match was in its final minutes at the Parc des Princes, when the ball ricocheted off a player’s body and on to their unsuspecting arm in the penalty area, resulting in VAR intervention. Outcome: penalty, leading to goal, leading to a change in the outcome of the match, leading to widespread outrage.

For Tino Livramento’s ‘handball’ for Newcastle against PSG on Tuesday night, see also Presnel Kimpembe for PSG against Manchester United in March 2019, leading to Marcus Rashford’s spot kick eliminating the French club in the last 16.

“This is a disgrace, they put four people that know nothing about football in charge of looking at the replay for VAR,” Neymar said that night - and he wasn’t even playing, forced to watch on from the sidelines because of injury, then banned for three matches because of his outburst. “There is no penalty. How can it be a handball when it hits his back? Go f*** yourselves!”

Neymar earned himself a three-match ban for that outburst: four and a half years later, nothing has changed. VAR still annoys everyone with handball decisions, and it always will. The flaws in the system will be ironed out as soon as Lord Lucan returns to public life, riding Shergar at the Grand National.

From the very start, I was never in favour of VAR, just as I was never in favour of Brexit, or letting children play with crocodiles. Sometimes, you can kind of see the problems coming.

Presnel Kimpembe

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The people who pushed hardest for it in the first place (VAR, that is, not the crocodile thing) were managers, complaining about how much money bad refereeing decisions were costing their club. Handily, it also doubled up as a deflection technique after bad results.

What are they saying these days then, they must be chuffed at the advancement in technology, and paying tribute to the brilliance of mankind? Er, no, they’re complaining about how much money bad VAR decisions are costing their club. That went well.

VAR is never going to go away in its entirety now. As fans, like a befuddled owner who’s handed a new signing a nine-and-a-half-year contract because it seemed like a good idea at the time, we’re stuck with it, whether we like it or not. Opinion polls suggest that the majority do not.

At least those of us with the fortune of supporting a team in the EFL can still watch a normal football match in peace, almost dreading the day our club rises to the Premier League, and we have to put up with it all.

Football with just a referee and two assistants is actually pretty good most of the time - over the years, some might say it became a global success. If the ball goes in the net, it’s a goal, simples. Other price comparison website catchphrases are available.

For those with the misfortune of supporting a Premier League club, it’s now about putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. The absolute worst element of VAR, as exposed again in Paris on Tuesday night, is the handball thing.

Pretty much 95 per cent of the time, it goes like this: ball accidentally strikes player’s arm in the penalty area, referee doesn’t give penalty, VAR intervenes, referee goes over to monitor, referee gives penalty, people get very angry.

Eddie Howe

(Image credit: Getty Images)

By the old interpretation of the handball rule, the one that everyone understood and didn’t need changing, it was only a penalty if it was deliberate. In games where VAR isn’t in operation, that’s still pretty much how it goes.

Having attended many matches in the lower leagues in recent years, I’d wager that far fewer penalties are given for handball in the EFL than they are in the Premier League or the Champions League, where VAR is in force, and where football effectively now has completely different rules.

There, all it takes is for the ball to so much as brush an arm, no matter how accidental, pretty much no matter the position of the arm itself, and the appeals are vociferous, the penalty inevitable.

Most people know the original decision not to award a penalty was the fairest, and the VAR decision to award it anyway is nonsense. But, well, that’s the rules now apparently, arm in an unnatural position and all that, and we’ve got all the technology we need to take those stupid new rules to even more stupid lengths. Hooray for everybody. Except Newcastle. And PSG that time four years ago. And whoever it inevitably shafts next time.

If you were a forward now, and you see an opponent’s arm in your vicinity, why wouldn’t you head the ball straight at it? The closer the better - you can hardly miss it. Get your free penalty kick today, no questions asked.

Or, and here’s an idea, we could decide that actually, the handball rule was perfectly fine as it was before, that the EFL have got the right idea with this, and that we could leave that particular rule to the referee.

Fine, if you must, keep VAR for fouls, for offsides and all that stuff. But can we stop the handball thing, when 95 per cent of the time, the ref was right in the first place?

That’s not solving problems, that’s creating them where they didn’t previously exist, and sometimes those are the most infuriating problems of all. 

Just ask Neymar. Actually, don’t: if he tells you what he really thinks, he’ll be banned until 2077.

VAR isn't the issue - it's the lack of trained officials at grassroots level that creates a lack of quality at the top.

VAR promised certainty but has only delivered noise and confusion.

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