The Angle

VAR Is a Solution in Search of a Problem

by on 28 June 2017

As FIFA has rolled out Video Assistant Referee (VAR) during the Confederations Cup this month, the debate has often centered around the larger role of technology at the center of the matches. The problem with VAR is not a problem of technology, but rather that it is a solution in search of a problem.

Skynet and the best robot XI

For many of VARs opponents, the source of discomfort is the creeping of digital technologies into soccer’s gameplay. There seems to be a fear of a slippery slope where soccer becomes so subjected to cameras, screens, and microchips that the actual play of 22 men or women becomes marginalized in its own display.

Perhaps the most entertaining take on technology comes from Ian Wright, who fears we will need Arnold Schwarzenegger to come from the future to fight our video cyborg overlords.

Wright is being hyperbolic, but represents a particular attitude toward digital technology’s growing inclusion into the game. And he’s not completely wrong. Once we took the leap into goal-line technology, VAR was not far behind.

But this stems from an over-simplification of what technology is; technology is not just computers, but any sort of non-human extension of human action. The pen and paper a referee pulls from his or her pocket to jot down a yellow card, the number board to signal substitutions, and wireless communication between referees — all of these are ways in which we use technology to extend the ability of our referees.

“If in the long term it brings what it is supposed to bring — more justice to the game — then we’ll get used to it.”
-Juan Antonio Pizzi

I’ve made a semantic case, I know, but it’s to draw our attention to the important question of technology. Technologies are tools that solve specific problems. The pen and paper assists memory, the number board speeds up substitutions, and the radios increase communication. What does VAR do?

Justice

For Chile’s head coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi (who had a goal rightfully disallowed against Cameroon), VAR is the champion of justice. As he told reporters after the match (auto-video play warning), “If in the long term it brings what it is supposed to bring — more justice to the game — then we’ll get used to it.”

FIFA President Giovanni Infantino was more understated about VAR, but no less a cheerleader: “We have seen how video assistance has helped referees to make the correct decisions. This is what VAR is all about.”

If the hope is to make soccer a “just” game, then we may as well pack it all in now. Soccer is interesting in part because of its injustices: the improbable goal against the run of play, the deflected own goal, or missing the goal by an inch margin. These often get discussed and relived as much as the beautiful moments.

This isn’t to say that we should embrace injustice. When we can change rules or incorporate technology to make the game better, we certainly should try. However, even the phrase “make the game better” is besotted in subjective interpretation. Making the game better requires identifying a specific problem and looking for a realistic and simple solution to fix that problem.

Take the case of goal-line technology. The problem is that some goals are incorrectly ignored because the referee cannot properly see that the ball has gone over the line. What is or is not a goal is clear: has the ball crossed the goal line? The only question is the referee’s ability to track the ball in real time. Getting these calls correct is paramount since goals are such a precious commodity in soccer. And so, goal-line technology seems like the perfect case for a problem and a solution (though there are legitimate questions about whether this is something that can be applied throughout the entire world of soccer).

Objective fantasies

The problem with VAR is that it offers a false hope of objective reality. Referees are supposed to be objective (neutral) arbiters of the game, but their problem is that they are subjective (having specific embodied perspective) entities. They rely on their observations and perspectives and evaluate them according to their subjectivity.

This subjectivity is at the heart of what seems to be the problem. When Pizzi wants “justice” in the game, he wants a game where all the calls are correct all of the time. It’s a fantasy that somehow, there is a perfect objective reality that we might discover that will give us the “correct” calls. These quite simply do not exist. Almost all applications of rules require interpretations (those except, perhaps, the “is it over the line?” rules).

VAR does not attempt to cure all problems of subjectivity of course, since it applies to only certain types of calls. Some of the most subjective calls such as run-of-the-mill fouls will continue to be completely subjective. VAR is only a tool and no matter what, tools require reading and interpretation.

When VAR was unveiled in Australia, there was controversy in Sydney FC’s match against Perth Glory. At question was whether or not a player who did not attempt to play the ball was nevertheless offside by impeding a defender and interfering with the play. VAR allowed the referee a longer look, but it did not allow him to enter a magical space of objectivity. The referee made his call and there was still a debate. After delaying the game and then getting a decision that still may or may not be correct, what has VAR added to the quality of the match?

Questions of offside can be marred by the illusions of objectivity. There are certainly obvious calls that a referee will miss where a player is a yard past the last defender. However, VAR exists for the closest of calls, where an attacking player’s forehead has jutted inches past the defender’s shoulder.

The entire concept of the offside call is based on an impossibility. The human eye simply cannot fully detect all the variables involved in making the inch-perfect offside call.

This is where it gets back to being a solution without a problem. Is the game really ruined by these problems of inches? If that player’s head were just one inch back would the game really be significantly different? Has he or she really gained a significant advantage? Where soccer is a sport of flux — ebbs and flows in player movement — VAR seeks stasis.*

Is the goal of VAR to stop time at the very precise moment the ball leaves the foot of the player as he or she passes forward? The official language of the offside rule is actually even more vague than this, saying that it is when the ball “touches” that teammate. A touch has duration. It is not momentary (hell, even “momentary” has duration) in that within matter of seconds the ball is received and released by the foot.

The entire concept of the offside call is based on an impossibility. The human eye simply cannot fully detect all the variables involved in making the inch-perfect offside call. This, however, should not be lamented, but rather embraced as fundamental to the rule. An offside call should be give preference to the attack while it attempts to call it fairly.

If all this sounds so pedantic it is because VAR is by nature overly scrupulous. Certainly VAR will give us a more accurate call than solely relying on the assistant referee. But this is where I get back to the fact that this is a solution in search of a problem.

Is the problem that we just need more accuracy? Why? Since when is the point of soccer to have it be the most accurate? What is the perfect level of accuracy? Isn’t whinging about bad referee calls and injustice fundamental to the agony of being a fan?

It is time we embraced subjectivity as the feature, not a flaw of the refereeing system.

This isn’t to say we don’t make the system better through improvements. As we saw in Germany versus Cameroon, the use of VAR helped correct sending off the wrong man (after it assisted in sending off the wrong man).

The goal of any use of technology should never be to right injustice or simply make everything more accurate. It should be: make a better game. Sometimes (as with goal-line technology) that means using technology to get calls correct and other times it means letting the game move on, unimpeded by the obsessive desire for accuracy and objectivity.

*The VAR debate is a really interesting extension of the Zeno’s paradox (if you don’t remember it from college philosophy, go read it). Henri Bergson discusses Zeno’s paradox and gives it a thorough beating in Matter & Memory. I am a full-on Bergsonist, so I will just say that this whole discussion is based on the idea that time is not divisible. But I have a feeling that Infantino and FIFA don’t want to discuss Bergson with me.


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  • Offensive Loons Fan

    I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but baseball is a great way to think about the theory. Balls and strikes are, for the most part, pretty objective to read with technology. A ball was over the plate or it wasn’t, above the knees or it wasn’t.

    But the ability of a batter to understand and adapt to an umpire’s subjectivity is actually one of the interesting strategies of the game. If an umpire is consistently calling strikes for pitches that seem outside, you adapt to that as a pitcher and a batter. The ability to flex to an umpire becomes a skill as vital is speed or power.

    You could get rid of plate umpires and read strikes and balls perfectly in this era. The game would be “correct.” But the game would not be better.

    • Kyle Eliason

      In a baseball game, I want to see the duel between the battery and the batter. This is the human element of interest. And a big problem that draws complaints from players and managers on the regular is inconsistency in ball and strike calls, which inserts itself disruptively into games and to an extent reduces the impact the batter and pitcher have on the outcome of the at bat.

      I want to see Mike Trout versus Lance McCullers way more than Mike Trout versus Lance McCullers filtered through the lens of whatever Country Joe West feels like the outside corner of the plate is on this pitch, different from the last.

      Give me something closer to chess where the skill of participants determines the outcome, as opposed to poker where the correct play can cause players to loose based on dumb luck.

  • Pete Bissen

    People just need to accept that soccer/football/futbol is a beautifully flawed product. I don’t have a clear stance on VAR right now as it’s too soon to really judge it. I understand why people want correct calls but the delays mess with the flow of the game. Part of the “magic” of soccer is the injustice of having a blown call go against your team or the quick smirks that follow when your team gets a favorable, albeit obvious to everyone but the officials, call during the run of play.
    I’m all for goal-line tech and think it should be applied to all available venues. I’m just not sure about VAR yet….

  • Tres Gatos

    I am not a fan of VAR. It destroys momentum and feelings during the game. For what it adds to the game, it loses even more.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      I agree about momentum and stuff like that, but one thing I don’t understand is the people who act like VAR is straight up the devil and anyone advocating for it is ruining soccer. There is nothing wrong with wanting the results to be objectively correct. It’s a noble goal, if a hard one and (for many) an undesirable one.

      • Tres Gatos

        I think it is nice to have the desire to try something like VAR. But in the current form, there is much to be desired. I think they could waste less time with the signaling of it, by simply removing that part. I think they could add an additional person or two to the VAR booth, one for each angle to help make decisions quicker. And if something is not definitive, just move on. Some of the reviews that were not definitive took to long. At the end of the day, it is a game and not the end of the world.

        • Tres Gatos

          And yes, I am aware there are like 3 people already in VAR booth. 😂😂😂

  • Timber Dome

    I think it will be an overall good for the game. Pondering time in relation to the impact of a forward kick to an offsides call is interesting philosophically, but I don’t expect that to be the factor in VAR’s good/badness

    However, what’s the deal with incorrectly called offsides? They’re called off, but in fact they weren’t… Could that be a thing? Because we certainly don’t have time machines to let play go on after all

  • Brian David

    This is, hands down, the stupidest, most condescending take on VAR possible. Go home, Wes, you’re drunk.

    • Wes

      stupidest AND condescending! That’s an accomplishment.

      • Brian David

        I’m sorry, that was definitely mean-spirited on my part. Overreacting on the Internet is a bad habit of mine.

  • Matt

    Solution in search of a problem? I think the onside-yet-disallowed goal by FC Cincinnati would tend to disagree.

    • Wes

      So the problem is that there are bad calls?

      • Matt

        Yes.