The new technology has been in the limelight week in week out but for the wrong reasons.

The FIFA World Cup was played in South Africa in 2010. After riveting 48 group-stage encounters, the enthusiasm amongst fanatics reached its zenith when footballing behemoths and old foes Germany and England were pitted against each other in the Round of 16 stage. The game at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein was filled with high-octane entertainment from the get-go.

Die Mannschaft took a two-goal lead within the first 32 minutes. The scales were tilted a bit in England’s favor when defender Matthew Upson pulled one back for the Three Lions five minutes later. However, it was complete pandemonium just a couple of minutes later when iconic midfielder Frank Lampard scored a sumptuous equalizer, heroically getting England back into the game.

While half of the English players were flailing their hands in jollification, the ones closest to the referee had a look of incredulity on their faces. Much to the chagrin of the players and fans alike, the goal was disallowed as the linesman ruled that the ball had not crossed the goal line and signaled for a goal kick. Shockingly, replays showed that the ball had clearly crossed the line by almost a foot. Germany scored two more goals in the second half and England were unfairly eliminated from football’s grandest stage.

This discriminatory defeat reverberated loudly across the footballing universe with FIFA and IFAB (International Football Association Board) taking notice. It forced football’s head honchos to, for the very first time in the game’s history. Integrate technology to eliminate mistakes in high stakes games. Lampard’s disallowed goal led to the actively-alive goal-line technology, which is common practice today in Europe’s top five leagues.

This seed of technology gave birth to various saplings such as the Smart Ball System, Hawk-Eye, Goal-Ref System but none have had the dubious distinction of ameliorating and causing célébre in the beautiful game at the same time as the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

VAR Origins

The idea of the VAR was, unsurprisingly, conceived in the Netherlands. At the start of the last decade, the KNVB, the footballing governing body of the country started experimenting with the idea under its ‘Refereeing 2.0’ project. Although never cited as a reason openly, you can understand why the Dutch would want a third eye in the game. Especially after the 2010 FIFA World Cup final where they lost to Spain. Nevertheless, after getting the go-ahead from IFAB following successful trials. VAR made its unofficial debut in a friendly game between PSV and FC Eindhoven in July 2016.

It made its legitimate debut in a KNVB Cup game between Ajax and Willem II in September of the same year. Unexpectedly, the first football league to integrate VAR in their system was the A-League, the top-tier league in Australia. The governing bodies of all major football playing nations such as the United States, Portugal, Germany, Italy and Spain started amalgamating VAR, mostly for their Cup competitions and later their top flights. However, it had not made its way yet to the best footballing league in the world – the Premier League.

VAR reaches England and causes mayhem!

It took yet another human howler to fastrack the fusion of VAR into the Premier League. A controversial decision by referee Simon Hooper where he disallowed a late Charlie Austin goal adjudging Maya Yoshida to be offside led to the game against Watford finishing 1-1. This left the Saints perilously close to the relegation zone. During a post-match interview, an understandably upset Austin told Sky Sports (via the Sun):

“We scored a perfectly good goal that was ruled out for offside. The officials cost us two points. They said it was offside, that is a joke.

“People go on about VAR, they clearly need help. If this is the best, most-watched league in the world then give them all the help they need. It is a joke.”

Following the incident, all Premier League teams principally voted to bring VAR to the top flight from the 2019-20 season. It finally made its way to the best football league on the planet. A total of 109 on-pitch decisions were overturned by the VAR after checking more than 2400 incidents in its debut season. The league witnessed a substantial increase in correct key match decisions at 94% from 82% in the previous campaign.

Despite deriving some obvious positives from its application, VAR, astoundingly, has not been completely accurate and has negatively impacted teams in some crucial Premier League games. The VAR has ample tools and time to judge an error which may not be clear and obvious. However, despite having modern technology and time at its behest, the VAR has still ended up making erroneous decisions which have idiosyncratically influenced English top flight clubs.

Some controversial incidents involving the VAR are as under:

  • In the 2019-20 season again, Gabriel Jesus’ goal was disallowed when teammate Raheem Sterling’s armpit was adjudged to be 2.4 cm offside. Images showed him and the defender being practically level. An armpit? Really?
  •  In a high stakes game between Liverpool and Manchester City in 2020, the latter were denied a penalty via VAR despite replays showing Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly handling the ball. To add insult to injury, City conceded a penalty seconds later which they scored. Double burn for City.
  • In the 2019-20 season, West Bromwich Albion’s goal scored by Mbaye Diagne was ruled out for offside after VAR was unable to draw a line through his body to determine if it was ahead of the final Baggies player. The result could have severely impacted West Brom’s survival in the Premier League. Somehow, West Brom managed to survive that season.
  • In the ongoing 2022-23 season, West Ham United were denied a 90th minute equalizer against Chelsea after Jarrod Bowen was judged to have fouled Edouard Mendy in the buildup. David Moyes went berserk on match officials as his team was robbed of at least two points.
  • In yet another shocking overturn from this season, VAR decided that Spurs defender Christian Romero pulling Marc Cucurella’s hair in the buildup to his team’s later equalizer was not worthy of a foul. Chelsea dropped two points and what was even more shocking was the fact that the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited) accepted it as a ‘mistake’, leading the footballing fraternity to brand it as ‘corruption.’

How VAR influenced the Premier League Big Six’s fortunes in the 2021-22 season

The VAR has left its indelible mark on all teams in the English top flight, big and small. The below graph throws light on how the ‘Big Six’ teams in the league fared when their destinies were intertwined with football’s latest technology.  (Data source: ESPN)

From the above table, one can derive:

  • Arsenal were the biggest benefactors with respect to goals and penalties given for them. However, they could not really take advantage and only managed to relinquish their Champions League spot.
  • City made the advantage given to them by the VAR count and took the title last season.
  • Liverpool and Chelsea also had decisions in their favor and made them count. The Reds were on City’s heels till the last day of the season while Chelsea finished an admirable third.
  • The worst affected by VAR were Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. United had one of their worst Premier League seasons but Spurs didn’t allow VAR decisions to affect their season and snatched the Champions League spot from Arsenal’s clutches to finish fourth.

Current and ex-players feel the VAR pain

Premier League players, past and present, have collectively felt exasperated by VAR’s decisioning and how it has had an effect on games.

Premier League legend and all-time top scorer Alan Shearer said via Match of the Day:

“It’s shocking. It’s abysmal. Disgraceful.”

England international and City winger Jack Grealish tweeted in 2020:

“As for VAR, I’ve shared my views before and it’s now just getting borderline embarrassing with some of the decisions. Ruining the game.”

Acclaimed Premier League commentator Jim Beglin tweeted last year:

“VAR was implemented to clarify decisions that are clearly and obviously wrong. It has too often confused matters instead.”

Former England striker and 1990 FIFA World Cup Golden Boot winner Gary Linekar said:

“It’s extraordinary how ludicrous VAR has become. Not only with their many errors but that it sucks the life out of the game. The joy of celebrating, which is what makes football so special, has been completely diluted.”

Pep Guardiola said the below after Phil Foden was denied a clear penalty in a game against Southampton (via Daily Mail):

“Oh my God, the VAR, oh my God. The penalty is incredible. The action, I don’t understand.

‘I want football to be more clear. The right decisions. Tonight, the referee Jon [Moss] cannot see the foul, that can happen, but the VAR? You have to ask the right people why.”

After the most recent north London derby, Antonio Conte gave his two resigned cents on VAR (via football.london):

“In Italy, they go on Thursday and stay together for three days to work together. To look at the video and try and improve. I don’t know if they do that in this country. But it would be a good idea because the level is so high. And we need the level of the referee and VAR the same. The Premier League is a really high level and for this reason every part of this situation has to be top.”

Should VAR stay in the Premier League?

VAR was introduced in the English top flight to better the game and eliminate human error completely, but it seems like it has had the opposite effect. One could possibly move on from a howler made by a referee on the pitch, considering ‘to err is human’ after all. But can one move on from a mistake done by the a human post checking replays of an incident from multiple angles with the use of world-class technology? What if such a decision costs a country a World Cup, a team a league title? Mistakes have been committed aplenty by VAR in the Premier League and it doesn’t seem to stop. Only the sands of time will guide the fate of this contentious concept, which was once introduced, astonishingly, to take the game to the next level.

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