In 1978 the Buggles sat in a flat in London and wrote their number one track ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ out of concern with the ill effects of modern technology; We can't rewind we've gone too far, Pictures came and broke your heart, Put the blame on VCR. Four decades later, a band of experts gather around screens in Stockley Park to adjudicate on live video feeds from Premier League games. Their Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology is accused of sucking the life out of the beautiful game.
The integration of technology into sports has been ongoing for decades and to great effect. From baseball to NASCAR racing, Aussie Rules to Gaelic games – they have all introduced various systems. Replay technology has become an expected norm in an era of mass sports broadcasting. 2001 saw the roll out of replay systems for Rugby Union and the International Cricket Council with the introduction of TMO and Hawk Eye respectively. In fact, technology and sporting innovations are no new concept – let’s not forget that horseracing first embraced photo finish innovation in 1881. But it’s 2019, and the Premier League appears to have difficulty embracing its shiny new toy.
According to VAR’s mission statement; ‘the VAR philosophy in the Premier League is "minimum interference – maximum benefit’. But since its introduction at the beginning of the season, there has been rumblings that it does the opposite: maximum interference – minimum benefit. Fans and former players have spoken out against it. Gary Lineker took to Twitter in his criticism “the way VAR is being used is crap. Could and should benefit the game but at present it’s sucking the life out of it.”
This in the aftermath of a controversial decision that ruled out Serge Aurier’s goal for Spurs when VAR deemed Heung-min Son to have been offside in the build-up. Of course, Spurs are no strangers to big VAR decisions; the penalty awarded for Moussa Sissoko's handball in the Champions League final still fresh in their minds. In Stamford Bridge, César Azpilicueta’s goal was also disallowed for an alleged offside. It was the turn of Blues boss Frank Lampard to speak out against it, saying the technology ‘kills the moment’. Last weekend there was further controversy surrounding decisions to award Bournemouth a goal but deny Aston Villa theirs in what looked like similar circumstances. Fans took to Twitter with terms like; ‘Football is dead’ and ‘VAR has had a shocker at Bournemouth.’
VAR has four terms of reference: goals, penalty decisions, direct red card incidents, mistaken identity. So why are fans and former players apoplectic? Some feel that the delay in consulting the VAR regarding goal decisions leads to deferred celebrations which in itself detracts from the overall buzz of a game. Others believe, as was the case around the Raheem Sterling’s offside in City’s opening game against West Ham, that the slow motion aspect of HD playback is adding to microscopic analysis which is leading to these ‘close calls’ being awarded.
But can an offside ever be just a little offside? A whisker? No. You’re either on or you’re off. VAR is currently in operation across leagues in 33 countries. It was introduced in top flight European football by Bundesliga and the Serie A at the beginning of the 2017/18 season and resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of penalties awarded, largely attributed to VAR catching fouls which would otherwise have remained unpunished. In the 2018/19 season, the Bundesliga saw the highest number of penalties for handball awarded since it was founded in 1963. So, is it this that fans worry about? That foul play will be called out for what it is, foul play.
The opening 10 games of the Premier League warranted 65 VAR checks. With an average of 6.5 checks per game, it causes delays in play. Throw into the mix the fact that in stadia without big screens, such as Anfield and Old Trafford, fans are not aware of when an incident is under review. If VAR were to have audio made publicly available, as is the case in other sports, would that go some way to allaying the scepticism of fans? In a nutshell, Premier League fans are not happy with interruptions to their beloved spectacle. VAR can be a mood killer, that is not in doubt. However, as has been proven on the playing fields of rugby union and cricket, replay technology can and does function as a worthy tool in refereeing. The question for Premier League spectators seems to be: at what cost? Maybe the Buggles were ahead of their time… Rewritten by machine on new technology, and now I understand the problems you can see