VAR is Here to Poison the Premier League... I Think

Earlier this morning, Premier League clubs agreed in principle to introduce Video Assistant Review for the 2019/2020 season. This agreement will contribute to the success of the league as the English top flight looks to shake off its reputation as the football league equivalent of a Nokia 3310 to the modern games Iphone XS. 

 

The premier league has often been criticized for hesitating to proceed with improvements to the league that will improve the fairness of results and remove the controversial calls that often dominate weekend results.

 

Earlier in the summer, The English Football League’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, noted that the technology required to proceed with VAR was “a fair way away.” He noted that many stadiums “don’t have the TV camerasin place that are standard fare at Premier League Clubs.” This creates concern for lower divisions such as the Championship, whose future with VAR has yet to be decided.

 

VAR’s world cup debut was an overall success. A report from ESPN stated that, of the decisions reviewed by the pitch-side monitor or by the off-site review team, 99.3% were correct. In the quarter final bout between Belgium and Brazil, VAR was consulted twice to determine a potential Brazilian penalty and both times the penalty was not given. Both calls were the correct decision and, as the game finished Belgium 2 – Brazil 1, the outcome without VAR could have ruined the correct outcome of the tournament completely. 

 

VAR’s criticism, however, has been increasingly heightened in previous years. True football zealots have claimed the added technology will slow the game down and rob the fans of the instantaneous excitement of individual decisions and goals. VAR, however, took an average of 80 seconds per world cup match. Those 80 seconds, compared to the average time lost for fouls (8 minutes and 16 seconds) are peanuts to an elephant. Similarly, the theory that taking time to make the correct decision robs the fans of celebrating decisions altogether is a backwards notion that should be reserved for drunken Bostonians when celebrating the success of the Patriots.  If the correct call takes a minute longer to be decided, that minute heightens the importance of the decision. Also, the correct call is being made – therefore removing the exponentially greater controversy that comes with a goal denying blunder from any referee. 

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That being said, VAR kind of sucks. It sucks because it is another instance of technology transferring the job of the referee from the field to an office in the middle of London, or Manchester, or whatever god-forsaken place the EFL decides to place it. For the avid football fan, controversy sparks excitement, it maintains energy, and it gives each game something to be remembered.

 

This past weekend, Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger was headbutted by Everton’s Bernard in a moment of football drama that has become all too typical in the 2018/2019 season. Their confrontation included the usual buildup: Player 1 tackles player 2 too hard, player 2 stands up to confront player 1, player 2 leans his head toward player 1, barely scraping his forehead, and player 1 goes down in a heap of agony. The rulebook would justify Bernard’s action as worthy of a red card. In actuality, both players were booked by referee Kevin Friend. Rudiger fumed over the incident, stating: “It’s annoying because I don’t even tackle something and I get booked for being head-butted. Sorry, but that’s a joke. If there is VAR in England, then Bernard has a problem. He would be sent off.” But, as much as it pains me to say it, Rudiger is wrong. The incident was petty and both parties deserved their punishment. If VAR had determined that Bernard should receive an equal punishment to that of spitting on a player or cursing at a ref, it would have been undoubtedly unjust. With VAR next season, calls such as this will determine games. Are the calls correct – I guess. Should the game be allowed to continue without VAR acting like a 4thgrade hall monitor – yes. 

 

So maybe VAR won’t entirely suck. But there is a good chance it turns a fun sport into an artificial stat machine whose only fan will be Nate Silver. Should the Premier League adopt VAR like the rest of Europe’s top divisions – probably. Is the tradeoff worth it – definitely not.