Its first and ten, there’s two minutes and thirty seconds left in the game, and by god the Patriots are storming back from a deficit the likes of which we may never see in Super Bowl history again. You can already see the 28-3 memes forming in Bostonian heads. Brady snaps the ball, takes his five step drop and rifles it over the middle to Julian Edelman on a deep post. The ball is tipped by the Atlanta corner and popped up into the air; then, Edelman performs some sort of wizardry to dive back to the ball and secure it before hitting the ground. Edelman defiantly screams that he caught the ball while the entire Falcons bench is waving their arms in disagreement, but in THIS sport we can go to the booth. The referee can very clearly see in slow motion and from several different camera angles that yes, Edelman did indeed complete his superhuman catch. This was one of several pivotal plays that was reviewed throughout this Super Bowl, and in almost every NFL game there’s going to be a couple of plays just like this.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “you just made video review sound super good!” But all I’ve really done is make video review sound super good in football. We’re not here to talk about football though, that video review system is tried and true and proven to be very effective. We’re here to talk about the new kid on the video review block: Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in soccer. We’re talking about soccers catch rule, the implementation of the designated hitter, the “No dunking” rule of 1967 (look it up, it happened people). This is one of the biggest changes to come to the sport in 100 years.
Here’s a little bit of background about me so you don’t just think I’m some disgruntled fan shooting off at the mouth. I’ve got an extensive history with the sport of soccer. My maternal grandfather was a national referee and he met my father who was also a national referee, which is how my parents ended up meeting. So if it hadn’t been for this wonderful crazy game I would not exist right now! I was kicking a ball since I could walk and I’ve played soccer throughout my entire childhood. I also reffed for about 4 years myself, and I might have gotten to the national level someday too if I hadn’t switched sports. So I know what it’s like to be on that pitch in the heat of the moment. I’ve had to make the tough calls that make people upset and I’ve even sent one or two parents packing because they did not agree with me. Bye Barb and Pete, better luck next time.
VAR does not work in soccer simply because it stops the flow of the game. Here’s the scene: It’s a cool march evening and I’m in “The WALL”, one of the best sports atmospheres possible. Fans are rowdy, they’re hooting and hollering and chanting “VAMOS ORLANDO!”. City’s got possession and is pushing up the pitch. We’re all screaming our heads off clapping and stomping as Richie Laryea is running down a rebound with Ethan Finlay (Minnesota United Midfielder) charging behind. Just as the ball reaches the edge of the box Finlay lays into Laryea and we all go nuts. The referee awards the free kick, the entire stadium is rocking with energy, I can feel it shaking my bones. Just as Orlando is about to take the kick, the ref blows the whistle and makes a box with his fingers….
The energy and momentum Orlando City had is sucked out of the stadium like Megamaid from SpaceBalls is overhead. Now I’m just stuck sitting there waiting. The whole wall’s gone silent and what once was a stadium ready to burst is now a golf match with the quiet signs up. A few long minutes go by and we start to become restless, pulling out our phones to search for post-match snack spots and drink specials, and the ref decides to make an appearance and points to the spot. What a glorious waste of time, and now all the energy that the fans had going into the free kick is lost while we had to sit there waiting on the call.
In 2016 the International Football Association Board (IFAB) got together and decided that video assistant referees were okay to use in trials. The Australian league became the first league to implement VAR in a professional game. On April 8th, 2017, the video assistant referee awarded a penalty to Sydney FC for an illegal handling of the ball inside the box against Wellington Phoenix. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. MLS then started using VAR after the all-star break in late 2017 and has continued to use it with gusto into this season. The English Premier League is said to be the only top tier European league to not have implemented it; the UEFA Champions league also does not use VAR. In the German league (Bundesliga) video replay was introduced in its early trial stages around the same time as the MLS, and like with any new technology its bound to have its kinks. In Cologne the communication between the replay headquarters and the pitch failed on numerous occasions. The offsides lines could not be superimposed onto the pitch to help make the calls, and several other technological failures happened. As the technology gets better the problems should be sorted out.
So, let’s talk about why VAR will still not be a viable option for the sport even when the technology does improve. Referees are there to make the difficult calls in the heat of the moment, and yes, sometimes they get those calls wrong, but that’s just part of the game. You leave it up to the discretion of the referees because they’re there getting paid to enforce the laws of the game. Referees are human just like you and I, they’re bound to make mistakes; guess what though? The VAR assistants are referees too and they’re going to make some mistakes as well. With so much money on the line now, the idea is to get human error out of the game entirely. But tech is controlled by humans, so are we just creating an extension or another outlet for human error to occur? Even if the tech is better, who’s to say it’s going to get the call right. We all know Dez caught it, right?
Now in games like baseball and football where the games are stopped after every play, the sitting and waiting aspect is part of the game. It’s what the fans have come to expect. Millions or, dare I say, billions tune in to watch the fast paced, never stopping sport of soccer. Soccer is all about the flow of the game. The build up of possession, finding the passing lanes best served to beat your opponent. Soccer fans want to writhe in anticipation until finally, FINALLY they get to see a glorious, or sometimes (like in poor Robert Greens case) not so glorious finish. They don’t want to have to sit and wait for three to four minutes as the ref goes to the monitor, talks to the man 100 miles away, and decides he was right all along. Soccer should not be like this. Soccer is meant to be non-stop action from start to finish. Until VAR gets to a point where the stoppage is so minute that it’s like a substitution, keep VAR out of soccer. No one wants to see soccer turn into baseball.