VAR — three letters that send shivers down the spine of every football fan. The Video Assistant Referee usually means a long interruption to play. If the on-field referee is called over to the TV monitor, it invariably means his decision is about to be reversed while fans are left in the dark about why.
The West Ham United Supporters’ Trust (WHUST) punches above its weight on VAR. When the Football Supporters Association (FSA) met with referees’ body the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), WHUST’s chair, Sue Watson was there, with two others from Wolves and Foxes (Leicester).
The referees’ side was formidable. Joining select group director Adam Gale-Watts were two controversial former refs who only hung up their whistles this year. Jon Moss and Martin Atkinson are, respectively, the PGMOL select group’s manager and coach.
Two recent West Ham VAR decisions topped the agenda. Jarred Bowen’s alleged foul on Chelsea’s Oscar-winning actor — sorry goalkeeper — Edouard Mendy, was one. The VAR official felt that Bowen had fouled Mendy based solely on the reaction from the goalkeeper, who stayed down.
This was a subjective call without evidence of a foul. And not every camera angle had been checked. The referees admitted the decision was wrong and this is now being used as an example of how not to do it when training VAR assistants. That came too late for Maxwell Cornet, whose goal was disallowed.
The second incident was the treatment of an alleged handball in West Ham’s match against Fulham. There was a Twitter storm afterwards because West Ham’s second goal was awarded despite an accidental handball when Antonio went to chest down the ball.
The referees explained it had not resulted in a goal-scoring advantage. In fact, the ball was played by two Fulham players, including the keeper, before Antonio scored. Antonio was deemed to have had two separate phases of play, the accidental handball and then the ball coming back to him after the defence had played it.
Many fans are unaware of the different interpretations of the rules, which are not decided by referees but by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). It was back in March 2019 when this distinction was clarified. IFAB made clear the only incidents to be punished were: “a goal scored directly from the hand/arm (even if accidental) and a player scoring or creating a goal-scoring opportunity after having gained possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm (even if accidental)â€.
Neither of those applied in West Ham’s case, so the goal was correctly allowed. The problem was that most fans, or TV/radio presenters, don’t know the rules, or choose to ignore them when complaining.
Seven incidents this season are being used to better train VAR officials. They are selected by a Key Match Incidents Panel and then discussed by a group of referees, the Premier League and “independentsâ€ including several former players. WHUST wants fans to be involved. A big problem identified by the fan reps was the lack of communication with supporters.
The referees accepted this and will explore ways to improve it. Recording and broadcasting the discussions between the matchday and VAR officials is a bone of contention. Any change would require IFAB’s approval.
VAR was introduced in 2018. There are a dozen VAR rules. The main principles are:
- The original decision given by the referee will not be changed unless the video review clearly shows that the decision was a ‘clear and obvious error’.
- Only the referee can initiate a ‘review’; the VAR (and other match officials) can only recommend a ‘review’ to the referee.
- The final decision is always taken by the referee, either based on information from the VAR or after the referee has undertaken an ‘on-field review’.
Other sports are managing to meet these principles better. In cricket, the ball tracking software must predict the ball will wholly hit, or miss, the wicket to overturn an umpire’s decision. A ball clipping the wicket is not enough. In rugby union, the on-field referee can state that the on-field decision is a try (score) and ask for any reason not to award it.Or, if unsighted, they can ask “try or no try?â€.
If the video official can see no evidence, in the first case, the try stands — endorsing the on-field referee’s decision — and in the second case there is no score. Crucially, in both cricket and rugby union, the video evidence and the discussion between the on-field and video match officials are played live to the stadium and TV audiences.
It’s great the referees are talking to fans about video refereeing, but WHUST wants further improvements. We won’t be pushing the pause button just yet.