VAR can cut errors, but is no silver bullet
VAR this, VAR that – just help the officials out. So ranted Charlie Austin in that gem of a post-match interview. The issue of video assistance – rarely far from anyone’s lips now – screeched back into the limelight on Saturday after a host of top-flight blunders.
Austin’s ‘goal’ for Southampton, disallowed for offside after a non-existent deflection reported by a linesman 30 yards away.
A trip on Watford’s Jose Holebas in the same game that should have resulted in a penalty. A similar incident involving Bournemouth striker David Brooks, cleaned out during the Cherries’ 2-1 defeat at Newcastle.
Later, on Match of the Day, Gary and the gang declared there would have been “no debate” if VAR was in use. In other words, no mistakes.
That’s the principle behind VAR of course; a system that eradicates match-changing errors completely.
Yet as the World Cup proved, any system is only as foolproof as the men at the yoke. A prime example is the now infamous incident in Serbia’s second group game against Switzerland.
Victorious in their opener, the Serbs were level at 1-1 when Aleksandar Mitrovic was absurdly tag-teamed to earth by Switzerland’s answer to the Legion of Doom.
A successful penalty would almost certainly have killed off the Swiss and assured Serbian qualification with a game to spare.
That referee Felix Brych penalised Mitrovic for a foul was incredible. That none of the four qualified officials in the VAR booth saw fit to inform him that the Fulham striker had been assaulted defied belief.
“It’s just… outrageous,” said Kevin Kilbane in commentary, reflecting the incre- dulity of all and sundry. That army of full-kitted numpties must have been the only people on the planet who watched those replays and didn’t see a stonewall pen.
It proved costly for the Serbs. Switzerland hit a last-minute winner, Serbia lost to Brazil in the final game and – in the bitterest of blinks – their World Cup was over. It was a rank injustice, and completely at odds with the stated intention of VAR, as explained by Howard Webb.
“We’re trying to go for the ones where the referee clearly gets it wrong,” he said. “Where there’s no debate, really. Everybody would say, ‘Yep, that’s a clearly wrong decision’. We are just trying to give our officials a better opportunity to avoid making clear errors – the kind of errors that can change the result of games.”
In the aftermath, Serbia filed an official complaint to FIFA, accusing Brych of being biased and even accusing the governing body of orchestrating their elimination.
“I do not expect FIFA to take action in order for this brutal robbery not to happen again, because it was all directed,” sniffed Slavisa Kokeza, head of the Serbian FA.
No debate? Hardly. It’s the exact sort of angry exchange and ugly allegations that VAR – with its supposed imperviousness to human error – was designed to wipe out.
Had VAR been installed at St Mary’s on Saturday, there’s no guarantee that the men in the booth would have given a goal. One of them might have adjudged that Maya Yoshida – he of the non-existent deflection – was standing in the Watford keeper’s eyeline. And Austin would still have been stood there, yammering away like an extra from a Guy Ritchie film.
That’s not to say VAR is a dud. In the round, it will reduce poor decisions. But if the system is to be embraced and successful it must not be burdened with unrealistic expectations, or viewed as some kind of silver bullet.
Because a referee, whether he is on the pitch or in a glass booth, is as fallible and subjective as anyone else.