ADDING a video-assistant referee (VAR) to the officiating staff at football matches was supposed to drag the game into the 21st century. The sport’s rulebook was first codified in 1863, making it one of the oldest of all. But the version used today makes no mention of video replays, which have aided referees in most other team sports for decades. That might change on March 3rd at the 132nd annual general meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB). IFAB is recognised as the guardian of the rulebook by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). On Saturday it will have the chance to enshrine in law the video-replay protocols that it has trialled in a handful of domestic competitions this season. If the vote passes, the new system will be used at this summer’s World Cup.

IFAB might have hoped that the VAR system would be celebrated as a long-awaited improvement. That was the case for goal-line technology, which was introduced in 2012 and provides the referee with an instant beep on his watch if the ball has crossed the line. Yet the latest innovation has been met with almost unanimous scorn. The role of the VAR, who sits in his own video bunker, is meant to be simple. He is supposed to advise the on-field referee, either through his earpiece or with a video screen, if a “clear error” has been made in four crucial areas: goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity. In theory that should be quite a limited role. The average game has about 2.5 goals, but only a small share of those are controversial. Though there is no public record of how many penalty appeals are made, in the last Premier League season referees awarded them about once in every five matches, and waved a red card about once in every nine. Issuing a card to the wrong player happens perhaps once a season.

In spite of the scarcity of such high-stakes moments in football, the VAR has at times become the game’s most active participant. He made ten interruptions during a fixture on February 28th between Tottenham and Rochdale in the FA Cup, England’s main knockout competition (pictured above). Those checks extended the 90 minutes by nearly 10%. Half of them were needlessly lengthy replays for goals that looked completely legal to everybody in the stadium. Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham’s manager, later complained that such interventions are “going to kill emotion” in the game. 

He is far from alone. Most managers have whinged about the system at some point. Steve Parish, chairman of Crystal Palace, has warned that slowing down matches could make them less appealing to television audiences. Fans in Germany and Italy, the two most prominent countries where VAR is currently being used in league games, have chanted about it destroying the sport. Mark Halsey, a former referee, has described it as “a shambles”. Aleksander Ceferin, the president of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), announced on February 26th that regardless of IFAB’s vote the system would not feature in next year’s edition of the Champions League, the continent’s premier knockout tournament. “Nobody exactly knows how it works”, he lamented. The Premier League might make the same decision in a meeting next month.

Avoiding extra time

In the face of such derision, it would be easy for IFAB to abandon the innovation. That would be a mistake. Instead, it should take heed of the three complaints that are generally posed by its critics. The first is that the decision-making process is communicated poorly to players and fans. The second is that the protocol is used too often and takes too long. And the third is that it fails to improve the standard of officiating.

Start with communication. Unbeknown to most fans, the VAR actually conducts two types of decision. He runs an initial “check” on every ruling about a goal, penalty and red card by looking at replays from multiple angles. He generally does so in silence, though occasionally he will describe the action to the on-field referee, who will indicate this process to the players by holding his finger to his ear. If the check reveals a possible error the referee can ask for a more detailed “review”, which he signals by drawing a rectangle with his fingers. This review can be conducted by the VAR and described via earpiece to the referee, or the referee can look at a screen on the touchline himself for particularly difficult decisions. 

The protocol sounds straightforward. Yet sometimes the VAR’s initial check will last so long that it essentially becomes a full review, throwing all onlookers into confusion. On such occasions the referee stands with his finger to his ear for up to a minute, an ambiguous signal that is often missed by spectators. Even when the referee makes the rectangular gesture, the ensuing review is mostly invisible. The VAR watches the same angles that are shown by the broadcasters, but in a different sequence. The big screens in the stadium typically go blank, leaving the crowd in the dark. The referee’s microphone is also muted due to the foul language often barked his way by players, which makes it impossible to decipher his reasoning. To make the protocol more fan-friendly, football should copy rugby and cricket, in which the officials talk through their interpretations frame by frame for the benefit of viewers at home and in the stands.

The second complaint to tackle is the frequency and length of the VAR’s interventions. In January IFAB released data from 804 competitive games that have been conducted using the protocol. The headline figure showed that there were roughly five VAR decisions per match—more than double the number of video referrals used in fixtures at the most recent world cups for rugby and cricket. However, the vast majority of the VAR’s tasks were initial checks, with a median length of 20 seconds. Full reviews typically lasted a minute, but were surprisingly rare. They occurred in just under a third of games, with only 5% of fixtures needing more than one review. Despite the moaning that ensues, interruptive affairs like the one between Tottenham and Rochdale are exceptional. Across the whole sample, IFAB calculates that VAR decisions used up less than 1% of playing time, compared to the 28% lost during free-kicks, throw-ins, goal-kicks and corner-kicks.

Football fans are notoriously wary of statistics, however, and such numbers are unlikely to stop their grumbling about interfering officials. The more effective way to deal with this complaint would be to get rid of initial checks and to introduce a “challenge” system for reviews, as is used in tennis, cricket, baseball and American football. This would help with communication, as the referee would need to make a clear signal as to whether the challenge had been submitted, and then explain the outcome to the challenger. It would make the process more dramatic, rather than a nervy after-thought for fans to endure after every goal. And it would probably reduce the overall time lost to VAR decisions further still. In the eighth revision of the VAR protocols, which are 67 pages long, IFAB expressed concerns that challenges would be used for “unsporting tactical reasons”, such as wasting time. Evidence from other sports suggests that this is unlikely. In baseball, teams are allowed to submit one unsuccessful challenge per game, but do so less than half of the time, saving the call for important moments towards the end or for particularly obvious errors. Applying such incentives to football would be an easy way to reach IFAB’s target of “minimum interference with maximum benefit”.

The third criticism, that the VAR does not improve the standard of officiating, is the hardest to resolve. Despite the benefit of slow-motion replays, the system has still produced a handful of mistakes. Perhaps the worst came on January 29th in Italy’s Serie A, when Crotone were denied a late winner against fellow relegation candidates Cagliari, which was inexplicably ruled out for offside. Such decisions should be easy, since a straight line across the screen can show whether an attacking player is ahead of the last defender. Penalties are harder, since the definition of handling the ball “deliberately” or tackling a player “carelessly” is subjective. Given the room for interpretation within the laws, there is no such thing as total consensus within officiating. Other sports encounter this problem too. The National Football League still has difficulty articulating what should count as a legitimate catch, just as rugby struggles to define downward pressure for a try.

Despite this enigma, refereeing boards have tried to retrospectively measure obvious VAR mistakes, based against the general opinion of a number of officials. The Italian Football Federation has admitted that 11 of the 60 review-based corrections made by the VAR in the first half of the current Serie A season were wrong, at a rate of 18%. The equivalent rate for the Bundesliga has been 11 out of 48 (23%), according to the German Football Association. Such a large portion of blunders might seem unacceptable given the resources available to the VAR. A correct decision wrongly overturned is also particularly painful, as any Crotone fan will tell you. But put another way, the VAR has reduced refereeing errors in the most important aspects of the game by about 80%. IFAB says that total accuracy in the four major categories has risen from 93% to nearly 99%.

That is surely worth an extra minute of deliberation per game. The history of the World Cup is filled with refereeing howlers in crucial ties. Germany’s Harald Schumacher clattered France’s Patrick Battiston into a coma in 1982, Argentina’s Diego Maradona punched the ball into the goal to beat England in 1986 and Germany’s Rudi Völler dived against Argentina to win a penalty in 1990. Each foul went unpunished, each changed the course of a tournament, and each could have been corrected by the VAR process. With a little effort to make his work more accessible and acceptable to onlookers, the official in the video bunker ought to be appreciated by fans—and to prevent such travesties from happening again.