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VAR: A Blessing or a Curse?

With the Premier League set to welcome VAR for the 2019-20 season, Ed Alexander considers its possible threat to the beautiful game.

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Next season the Premier League will join its European counterparts and introduce Video Assistant Referees. Yes, the much-maligned, yet somewhat appealing VAR is coming to these shores. The question still asked, however, is whether it will enrich our top-flight football or ultimately end up as something of a crutch.

Let’s face it, there’s good and there’s bad to the new technology. Its most blatant benefit is that it improves the accuracy of officials’ decisions, something that few would be opposed to. Supporters incessantly call for consistency from referees and that can only be improved when the option to review any incident is on hand. So far, so good for VAR.

Do we really want to sacrifice the raw, beautiful emotion of the moment for absolute, hardline precision?

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks despite this advantage. In La Liga – one of the domestic competitions to have already employed it – the system very faintly alters how matches in the Spanish first division play out. Celebrations – from players and fans, alike – have become ever so slightly reserved, with those on the scoring side evidently aware that they could be left looking rather foolish should their effort be chalked off. Do we really want to sacrifice the raw, beautiful emotion of the moment for absolute, hardline precision?

To answer this pressing question, we should look at some of the most high-profile cases where VAR has reared its head. The recent, pulsating Champions League quarter-final clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City contained one such episode. Raheem Sterling’s goal in the dying embers of that encounter exploded the Etihad Stadium into rapturous joy, before the jubilant crowd was swiftly brought down to earth by its disallowance.

It was a cruel twist for the City faithful, though the decision was no doubt correct. Now, what matters more: the freedom to let loose without lingering doubts, or the fact that justice was done? Probably the latter. It would almost definitely have been more gut-wrenching for Spurs supporters to witness their side unfairly crash out of Europe’s elite competition.

what matters more: the freedom to let loose without lingering doubts, or the fact that justice was done?

That conclusion likely has the backing of viewers who have seen their clubs harmed by poor officiating that couldn’t be redeemed by VAR. Think back to Cesar Azpilicueta’s horrifically offside score against Cardiff City in March or the numerous times Liverpool’s Mo Salah has conned referees into awarding a spot-kick; if our own teams had been done such a disservice we may well also be baying for it to be brought in immediately. So that leaves us with the issue of how it could be fine-tuned and adjusted to minimise the negative aspects.

If the process could be accelerated to reduce the delay between the ball crossing the line and the confirmation of a goal, then VAR might have a solution to the conflict between fair decision-making and the passion of scoring. But is there such a solution? While nothing has been mentioned so far, there is a reasonable likelihood that – given enough time – the system can be modified and streamlined. It may be frustrating to begin with, but a season or two of tweaking and adjustments is a small price to pay for ensuring quality verdicts from the men in black.

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