VAR – Soccer’s New Normal

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed the concept of a “New Normal” was born. Basically, the change was so foundational what once would have been considered a temporary shift, was now in fact, the norm.

With the global* introduction of  the Video Assistant Referee system, or “VAR”, soccer is finding its own New Normal. There have been moments where watching VAR inserted into soccer is akin to trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominate hand.  It’s just weird.

*Global only in the sense there are several leagues across the globe instituting VAR, but not all. 

Predictably, the introduction of VAR has had its fair share of controversy. Even the system’s biggest proponents forewarned this was not going to be a pretty process. Everyone knew this going in, but concerns over how much it would impact how fans watch and players react to the game never seemed to float to the top.  Today we now can see for ourselves – this is going to take some time to get used to.

While you can nit and pick at specific areas, (the system has delivered results from the confusing to the downright silly) many of the biggest ones – if you’re looking at the letter of the Laws of the Game and the introduction of VAR on top of them – turned out correctly.  And while that is kind of the point to all of this, does it have to be so – wonky?

Here are a pair of situations to consider.

Dutch Super Cup – Saturday, August 5, 2017
Feyenoord and Vitesse: Ironically, one of the very first European club games to officially institute VAR contained the exact scenario we’ve pondered over on the radio show (The KickAround, Saturdays 2-4 on the Ticket) for some time. That scenario has always seemed highly unlikely, but here it happened – right off the bat.

A foul in one box is waved off as no penalty, the opponent takes possession, works its way downfield and scores a goal of their own. Here, the result put Feyenoord up 2-0.

But wait! Swooping in is VAR to the rescue. A full two minutes and 25 seconds later – but what feels like the time it would take to play a Cricket match – the Feyenoord goal is revoked because the referee has changed his mind about the PK he waved off, is now awarding it and Vitesse converts to now make the game 1-1.  A lot happened between the penalty in question and the goal, but the ref used VAR to erase all of that and go back to the real error. Confused? Watch the video (although you’re likely to still be confused).

FC Dallas v Colorado – Saturday, August 12, 2017
In one of those steamy mid-August Frisco evenings, the Huntsmen and Rapids clang off each other in a goalless game until the moments just before the halftime whistle, there’s action!  Dallas appears to win a ball deep in their own end, push it forward and on the counter Maxi Urruti converts a sweet right footed strike, leaving Tim Howard stone footed.  Maxi shoots his imaginary arrow into the stands, he’s mobbed by his teammates, fans go bonkers, firewor…. *cue needle scraping a record sfx*

But. Wait. When Dallas won that aforementioned ball deep in their own end it was the byproduct of an Atiba Harris challenge. Harris not only won the tackle, it also spit the ball all the way out, almost to midfield, where it found Christian Colman. A sprint and pass later, Urruti scored. That is the entire “attacking phase of play”, a phrase that is important to understand.

The goal was overturned because VAR rang down to referee’s Allan Kelly’s ear and told him he may want to go back and take a peek at Harris’ challenge. Sure enough, when you watch it again, Harris does clearly commit a foul in winning the ball. It’s pure luck the ball ends up where it did, and then some skill it turned into a goal.

Now, Kelly decides to go view the replay, watches for less than 10 seconds and decisively overrules himself, waves off the goal and gives Colorado a free kick a top the Dallas penalty area. The free kick ends up as a moon shot, therefore avoiding the even worse result of Dallas going down.

Here’s the thing, go back and watch the play again. Kelly is right there at the time of the foul. Maybe 12 yards up field, with a perfect line of sight to make the call. He sees it, sees the ball fly back up field and then he turns and pursues the play.  In pre-VAR soccer, that’s about a clear a shot a ref’s going to get at making a decision.  Kelly, probably PRO’s top guy, gives zero indication he’s waffling about his call.  In referee parlance that is referred to as ‘foul recognition’.  It is soccer’s subjective equivalency to baseball’s strike zone.

It is important to note VAR clearly told us from the beginning that goals and how they are created – the time before the goal called the “attacking phase of play” – could all be taken into consideration in deciding to overturn. That is exactly what happens here. While it covers 80+ yards, maybe 10 seconds and only two passes, this attacking sequence does, in fact, begin with Harris committing a foul to win the ball. By the rules set forth by VAR, Kelly’s decision to wave off the goal, just like the Dutch Super Cup situation, was 100% correct.

Referees are asked to judge what is and isn’t a foul maybe hundreds of times a game. Kelly clearly decides, up close and in real time, Harris’ tackle was not a foul. The very important part of this to absorb is VAR allows Kelly to realize he’d missed in that moment of foul recognition. What soccer is realizing now is just how transformative this change will be to a sport that has thrived for decades on an infinite number of moments of subjective decision making by stacking on top yet another layer of subjective decision making.  Remember, Kelly could have watched that replay and just as easily decided there “wasn’t enough there to call a foul”.  In VAR, the final decision still belongs only to the referee.

So, on that Saturday night, in a less than 60 seconds, the game goes back to donuts, Maxi is upset about his misfired arrow, teammates break from embrace only to see the ref with a finger in his ear and then making a rectangle as if he’s teaching shapes to kindergarteners, fans are confused, fireworks are wasted.

And that, my fellow soccer friends, is our New Normal.

The greatest irony in the above cases is VAR ‘worked’, meanwhile the means to the end were confusing, frustrating and just plain weird to experience.

Go back earlier this summer, to the Confederations Cup, where VAR was used. The number of times a goal was scored, or not, and players, fans, coaches, commentators all froze with confusion over what was going on as officials on the field and in the stands conferred over what would actually end up happening. Goal celebrations quickly went from the spontaneous eruptions of emotion fan except, devolved into quasi-waiting rooms. Was it a goal? Was it not? And then even if it was allowed, the mood was ruined.

We can all agree, the introduction of technology could improve the sport of soccer and has with Goal Line Technology (GLT) as used in the English Premier League. The difference there are the decisions are made by a computer in the ultimate binary way, and you know what happens? The computer instantly decides, signals the referee’s watch and everyone on the field accepts it. Pretty sure you’d struggle to find any protracted complaining about a GLT decision. But with VAR, you’re still stuck with humans, making subjective decisions and that means we’re all going to fuss and debate about them.

There’s a whole other conversation about the great human experiment side of VAR. The idea of asking a human being to be willing to overrule themselves, admit fault, in front of a crowd of thousands or millions. Inversely, does the system actually give the ref a sense of protection to make/not make calls because they know VAR is there? It really is a fascinating personality test on full display.

And lastly, what about ‘Law 18’?  Take into consideration what happened on the same night Urruti’s goal was waved off. Orlando City’s Kaka was given a red card for putting his hands on Aurélien Collin’s face during a somewhat heated moment. The problem was the card was given after the referee watched it happen on a VAR replay and still the failed to recognize what occurred was two friends goofing with each other. Collin even went to the ref to plead Kaka’s case!

We all might find some way, even if it just takes time, to adjust and adapt to the New Normal, but what VAR should never, ever be allowed to do is supersede Law 18.  The unwritten law is taught to referees to understand the previous 17 Laws were written in a manner to allow for the injection of common sense.  It is the variable that allows referees to rule in the grey area that is the spirit of the game.  The Kaka incident would seem to be a perfect opportunity for a referee to realize they’d simply misunderstood and correct themselves, but here VAR was actually used to witness something, repeatedly in slow motion, and still deem it as “violent conduct”.

There’s so much wrong with how this went down, it’s almost impossible to unpack.  Bottom line: VAR not only failed the game here, it embarrassed the game.

Of the three discussed scenarios the last is the one which seems the most correctable oddity.

It is the first two, the revision of how a game transpires and the resulting clunky breaks, which will take a lot of time to adjust.

For better or worse, welcome to soccer’s New Normal.