There’s not much that unites football fans apart from our love of the game. We come from diverse ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. We eat different foods, speak different languages, and most importantly of all we support different teams. That’s what keeps the game going. Because if we all held hands and sang Kumbaya all the time there would be no passion and no rivalry that drives our will to win.
But all that has changed in the past few months. Now we appear to have found a common enemy to unite against – and its name is VAR.
Whether you’re a fan of EPL, Serie A or the A-League, if social media is anything to go by, VAR is almost universally loathed. I say almost universally because I am feeling a bit like Neville No-Mates on this. I actually quite like it…
[Enzo ducks hundreds of sharp flying objects]
But rather than bore you with what I think, and invite you to hate me even more for this, I thought I would seek some more informed opinion to deflect some of the flak! So I approached Chris Kerr, who was happy to chat in a personal capacity while making it clear that these are his own views and not those of AFF or NZF.
Chris is a retired FIFA referee who has seen many things across his 26 years as a match official. These days he helps others develop the next crop of officials coming through to face the future of the game in New Zealand. I started by asking him what’s your overall impression of VAR so far?
CK: It’s been interesting and has certainly been polarising and generated some conversation around football.
I am not a huge fan of video technology being involved in the officiating of the game with the exception of goal line technology. My resistance is around my preference to let football be football and stay a game of ‘in the now’ and not cross over into the waiting and delay that has become part of rugby, league and cricket.
Football for me is very much about the human elements around passion, flare, feeling, emotion, excitement, brilliance but also mistakes that come with these. These elements are shared by everyone involved in the game from administrators, technical staff, players, officials and the fans.
I think once you introduce technology, you reduce these elements and they don’t manifest naturally after a stoppage and you can’t recreate them. Netball is played at such a frenetic pace and is exciting, but could you imagine it still functioning if technology was involved?
I guess you must assess that trade off vs the need for correct decisions. It’s a tough one.
EG: Has it improved the accuracy of decisions at all?
CK: I guess it depends on where you look but at the moment it’s difficult to say. The end goal of the VAR is to reduce the clear and obvious errors that occur from match officials and while it has corrected some, it has also created a few that have had a lot of publicity and commentary but then I am not the gatekeeper of whether or not this is a success. For some, correcting even one error could be viewed as a success.
EG: Why do you think they are getting some decisions wrong? The ref knows the rules and has the replay right in front of him. What are we missing?
CK: At referee coaching nights, you can put a video on screen and in a room of 100, see varying degrees of opinion even though everyone is looking at the same clip on the same screen with the same angle.
I think the initial catch phrases of ‘minimal interruption, maximum impact’ and ‘is this a clear and obvious error’ need to be adhered to more. If you use the example of the 2 red cards recommended by the VAR on the CCM vs WSW game, I think you can certainly say one is a clear and obvious error and the other, well you could arrive at a yellow card as well as a red card so is this clear and obvious error?
EG: Why is this so hard to get right in football when it seems to work in so many other codes?
CK: Firstly there are some areas of the laws of the game that paint an outline of an interpretation and then you need to use elements to assess and interpret based on what you see. In cricket, they look at absolutes – was the front foot behind the line, did it pitch in line, was a shot offered, did it hit bat, where is the height.
Secondly you have to acknowledge the maturity of other systems and the investment in the technology. The DRS has been around for some time in cricket and they have really worked hard on fine tuning the technology that powers that, so you step through the process.
Thirdly in other sports, the decision to review is decided on field. In rugby and league the referee can send up anything to be reviewed at any time he likes if he has any doubt and in cricket, teams have an amount of challenges against an umpire’s decision.
In the early days of the NRL, Bill Harrigan was not a fan of the video ref and after he was given a rev up to use it more, had a game where he sent every decision upstairs to prove a point that he felt it was not always needed. Now days, the most obvious decision in rugby is reviewed and that is bemoaned a lot by the fans of that sport. In football, the referee is left to his own devices and can’t stop the game and go ‘I think we have a handball here and need to review it’ so it’s still left to the referee in the first instance to judge based on what he sees.
EG: Judging by the levels of hate VAR seems to be getting from all sides, isn’t there a large element here of people just seeing what they want to see when watching the teams they love? Isn’t that always going to be human nature, VAR or not?
CK: Another good question and I would respond with “is the dress black and blue or white and gold”?
People will see what they want to see when looking at the same video clip. I was aware of an incident in a game in NZ recently and there was an outcry on social media that a player should have been sent off and the referee got it completely wrong. The Tuesday night highlights showed that he got it spot on and it’s another case that people swore absolutely that what they had seen was correct.
I think if anything we really do not allow for the human nature of match officials but everyone else is entitled to it. Its accepted hypocrisy and if you choose to be a referee, you have to live with the fact that everyone else is allowed to make mistake except you.
EG: Is there anything about VAR that you particularly like?
CK: I think there has been a massive reduction in simulation on games where it has been in use and I think if you canvassed 100 people in football, 100 of them would say this is the major scourge on the game. I don’t recall one player falling over this year in the HAL specifically and I think that’s directly attributable to the VAR system.
If you fall over and earn a penalty/direct free kick or get a player sanctioned, it’s going to be reversed within a minute and you will get a yellow card. There is also the shame that comes with it (if any) because fans of the game really do not like this aspect and it’s used as a stick with which to beat football when the wider sporting public show their dislike of our game.
EG: Do you have any thoughts for how it could be improved?
CK: I think its place in football would be a lot more readily accepted by the wider fan base if the decisions were relatively instant. I think potentially if you leave it for issues that occur in the penalty area, because it’s the business end of the field that have a direct impact on goals/penalties, then I could live with that. Simulation, players that are fouled – those are probably the more important ones to get right mainly because of the outcome being a penalty kick and that affects the outcome of a game.
It could be a little early to write off the VAR. It’s really only been around for about 12 months and is very much in its infancy. Anyone that trials this is going to be a crash test dummy of the product. Maybe it’s better to let other leagues be involved in the trial and learn from their experiences and watch someone else operate it and let it mature and get the wrinkles ironed out before jumping on board.
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.