The eyes of the law

The argument over VAR remains unsettled

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Spanish referees once asked, “what are we going to talk about after the game?” The comment was a flippant joke, but it belied a widely-held assumption about using technology to verify or overturn referees’ decisions in football. Some complained the precision would ruin the romance of the game. Others worried it might slow down matches. But most assumed it would reduce the controversy of debatable decisions made on matchdays.

As if. This season we have already seen goals chalked off because they were deemed offside by the narrowest of margins. We have seen goals allowed when players in clearly offside positions have obscured the view of the goalkeeper. We have seen penalties given and overturned after the referee has been guided by colleagues sitting in Stockley Park in West London.

And the controversies keep coming. This summer, Mike Dean, the retired referee who spent last season as a dedicated VAR official, admitted he had not sent Anthony Taylor, a referee and a friend, to review a clear error he had made in a controversial 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham, because “he is a mate”. 

Taylor had missed a clear foul. Cristian Romero of Spurs had pulled Marc Cucurella’s hair — of which there is plenty — dragging him to the ground as Chelsea defended a corner during injury time (above). Had Dean referred Taylor to the screen, Romero would undoubtedly have been sent off, and Chelsea would have maintained their 2-1 lead. Instead, because Dean by his own admission turned a blind eye, Spurs went up the pitch to equalise.

“I think I didn’t want to send [Taylor] up,” Dean explained, “because I didn’t want any more grief than he already had.” At the time, the then Chelsea manager, Thomas Tuchel, was furious about the refereeing decision. The next month he was sacked, which you might say was a lot more grief than Taylor would have experienced had Dean told him to review his decision.

Of course, this kind of failure is not one of technology, but human judgement. But then this is often the point with VAR. Just as artificial intelligence and supercomputers are in fact unlikely to end human employment for the simple reason that they are not human and cannot do what humans do, so the technology of VAR cannot replace the referee. It can only provide referees with more information and different vantage points. The problem with VAR, then, is one that predates the technology. It is the referees themselves.

But that is not all. There is also the question of policy, where again VAR has parallels with other technologies. In the case of driverless cars for example, the challenge is no longer the technological possibility but the way we regulate it. In car accidents where drivers are human, they make split-second decisions and we judge them according to the law. For driverless cars, the application of our laws and insurance policies need to be decided in advance: we need to agree the morality of choices in an infinite number of situations, in advance, where one decision might save a life by risking another. 

With VAR, decisions about when a foul has been committed or a player is offside have become impossibly and almost spuriously specific. Before VAR, linesmen (or assistant referees as we must call them now) would make a call on whether an attacking player was beyond the line of the last defender, now the policy has to be incredibly specific. Attackers who seem exactly in line with defenders can be deemed offside by the tiniest of margins. 

So the laws of the game now say a player is offside when “any part of the head, body or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent”, and that “the hands and arms of all players, including the goalkeeper’s, are not considered” but “for the purposes of determining offside, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit”.

It is this precision that often provides the controversy, since nobody would expect such perfection from the naked eye of a match official. The perfection of measuring whether the bottom of a player’s armpit was further forward than, say, the heel of a defender thirty yards across seems ridiculous. Two players deemed by fans to be in line with one another are now seen as microscopically apart. 

Some referees observe less diving, less violent play and fewer clear and obvious errors

Equally, however, there are upsides. Some referees observe less diving, less violent play and fewer clear and obvious errors. But again, this returns us to a matter of controversy. Why do some referees overturn a decision — as the rules say they should — only when a subjective decision has involved a “clear and obvious” error, but other referees seem to overturn decisions that are far finer calls?

It never seems consistent. But then refereeing decisions never were consistent and sport and football have always been about disagreement and debate. And just like a referee’s call — on a penalty perhaps or a contentious offside — we cannot even agree about whether we think VAR is a good thing or not. According to a national supporters survey conducted in April by the Football Supporters’ Association, two thirds of fans said they oppose VAR. But according to a survey by Ipsos MORI conducted in the same month, two thirds of supporters said they were in favour. Carry on arguing.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover